Woman in red dress walks a dog outside.Share on Pinterest
SeventyFour/Getty Images
  • A new study finds most people may not stay on GLP-1 drugs long enough to see their effects.
  • Research from Blue Cross Blue Shield finds 58% of people taking liraglutide or semaglutide stopped using the drugs within 3 months.
  • The reason people stop using the drugs may vary. In some cases, people may be impatient. Other people may develop serious and uncomfortable side effects that lead them to stop using the drugs.

Over half of people prescribed weight-loss drugs like Saxenda and Wegovy over the past decade stopped taking the medications too early to see any meaningful changes to their health, according to arecent study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

The insurer analyzed the pharmacy and medical claims of 170,000 people between July 2014 and December 2023 and found that 58% didn’t complete a prescribed 12-week course of liraglutide (Saxenda) or semaglutide (Wegovy).

Nearly one in three people stopped taking the drugs within a month, which is before the recommended dosage is able to achieve the targeted strength. People need to be on the drugs for at least 3 months to reach the recommended dosages for weight loss. As a result, those who ceased the medication early didn’t get any of the intended benefits of the drug.

“This study underscores how much more we have to learn about these medications,” said Kim Keck, BCBSA’s president and CEO, in a press release. “The science behind these drugs is moving faster than our ability to truly understand which patients will benefit, how to sustain their success and how to pay for them. If we don’t get it right, we will drive up costs for everyone with little to show for it.”

Wegovy and Saxenda, along with Ozempic, are part of a family commonly called GLP-1 drugs, or glucagon-like peptide1 receptor agonists. Ozempic is meant to be prescribed to adults with type 2 diabetes to help lower risks of heart disease and manage blood sugar levels, but it is also prescribed off-label — where a drug that’s approved for certain conditions is prescribed for another purpose — for weight loss or weight management. Because they help reproduce or enhance the effects of a naturally occurring gut hormone that assists in the control of blood sugar levels, they can also reduce appetite by working on brain hunger centers.

Wegovy is recommended with exercise and a low calorie diet for long-term weight loss in:

  • adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher (obesity)
  • adults with a BMI of 27 or higher (which is considered overweight) and a health condition that’s related to weight
  • children 12 years and older whose BMI is in the 95th percentile or higher (which is considered obesity)

All GLP-1 drugs have been found to be linked to serious gastrointestinal side effects, some of which can require hospitalization.

David Cutler, MD, board-certified family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, who was not involved in the BCBSA study, told Healthline that these side effects can be enough for some people to rethink an extended dose of the drugs.

“The most common side effects of GLP-1 agonists include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. These symptoms can be severe enough to lead some patients to discontinue the medication,” Cutler said. “Though rare, there is a potential risk of pancreatitis, which can be a serious condition leading some patients to stop the medication as a precaution. When combined with other diabetes medications, especially insulin or sulfonylureas, GLP-1 agonists can increase the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).”

Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, who also was not involved in the study, told Healthline that there are not typically side effects for cessation of the medications early.

“There are a small percentage of patients that stop it because of side effects, the main one being nausea and vomiting. But as they continue the medication, they typically adapt to the side effects. But stopping the medication doesn’t usually cause any terrible side effects,” Ali said. “Their hunger increases, so they can actually start eating more again and gain some weight.”

Ali explained that impatience can be a significant factor for some people taking these drugs.

“We try to educate the patients ahead of time and tell them that you need to commit for at least three to six months to see the best results. Because the way these medications work, we have to start at the lowest dose and work our way up. And sometimes people get discouraged; they’re not seeing much results at the initial doses, so they just quit,” Ali said. “Perhaps they’re spending a lot of out-of-pocket money for it, and then they’ve been on it for a few weeks and they haven’t lost any weight, then they get discouraged. And some patients stop just because maybe the insurance stopped covering it, or doesn’t cover it, they can’t afford it.”

Ali added that a lack of education about these medications can certainly assist that level of impatience or frustration, especially with some of the cost issues.

“How these medications work, maybe there are some unrealistic expectations, so we try to give the patient a realistic expectation of how these medications work and the timeframe it would take to, depending on where they’re starting, to achieve their goals,” Ali said.

Aside from costs and general expectation management, Cutler noted that the level of commitment and then the need to inject the drugs into the skin once a week can create problematic schedules or timing for some people.

“Most GLP-1 agonists are administered via injection, which some patients may find inconvenient or uncomfortable, leading to discontinuation,” Cutler said.

“The need for regular administration and possible dietary modifications may interfere with some patients’ lifestyles and preferences”

A study from a major American insurance company found that over a nearly 10-year period, more than half of 170,000 people prescribed Saxenda or Wegovy stopped taking the medications early.

Both drugs belong to a family of medications known as GLP-1 drugs, or glucagon-like peptide1 receptor agonists, most famously associated with an increasing use for weight loss.

The drugs have some significant early side effects that can be frustrating for some patients, but stopping the dosage regimen before the drugs can reach their recommended dosage means their benefits will not be felt.