Using drugs to tackle obesity could be a “game-changer” to ease pressure on the NHS, prime minister Rishi Sunak has said.
It currently costs the NHS 6.5 billion to tackle obesity – so, the government wants to reduce costs by making it easier to access weight-loss treatments through GPs.
Sunak said using new drugs to combat obesity could be a “game-changer” as he shared a £40 million pilot scheme to increase access to specialist weight management services.
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Approval for the use of appetite suppressant Wegovy was given by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) earlier this year, which said it should only be available through specialist services which are largely hospital-based.
The government said that would mean only around 35,000 people would have access to the drug, although tens of thousands more could be eligible under the criteria of having a body mass index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Now, a £40 million two-year pilot will look at how approved drugs can be made accessible to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside of hospitals.
This includes looking at how GPs could safely prescribe the drugs and how the NHS can provide support in the community or online.
“Obesity puts huge pressure on the NHS,” the prime minister said.
“Using the latest drugs to support people to lose weight will be a game-changer by helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer – reducing pressure on hospitals, supporting people to live healthier and longer lives, and helping to deliver on my priority to cut NHS waiting lists.”
Results from clinical trials shows that, when prescribed alongside diet, physical activity and behavioural support, people taking a weight-loss drug can lose up to 15% of their body weight after one year, with results apparent within the first month, officials say.
There were over one million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019/2020 where obesity was a factor and it is one of the leading contributors to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
NICE recommended semaglutide – the drug also known as Wegovy, which is a weight loss injection made by Novo Nordisk – for adults with at least one weight-related condition and a body mass index (BMI) score of at least 35.
The weight-related conditions that make obese people eligible include type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, high blood pressure, dyslipidaemia (unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels), obstructive sleep apnoea and heart disease.
“Pharmaceutical treatments offer a new way of helping people with obesity gain a healthier weight and this new pilot will help determine if these medicines can be used safely and effectively in non-hospital settings as well as a range of other interventions we have in place,” NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said.
“NHS England is already working to implement recommendations from NICE to make this new class of treatment available to patients through established specialist weight management services, subject to negotiating a secure long-term supply of the products at prices that represent value for money taxpayers.”
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the move but said there will need to be “sufficient resource and funding to account for the increased workload”.
She added that there also needs to be enough of the drug available “so as not to raise patients’ expectations, as there may be a significant number of people who would benefit from it”.