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  • Writer's pictureGOV.UK

New drugs pilot to tackle obesity and cut NHS waiting lists

More people living with obesity will have access to the newest and most effective obesity drugs to help cut NHS waiting lists, following the announcement of a £40 million two-year pilot.

  • A two-year pilot backed by up to £40 million will explore ways to make obesity drugs accessible to patients living with obesity outside of hospital settings

  • The newest weight loss drugs can help adults living with obesity lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight when prescribed alongside diet, physical activity and behavioural support

  • Pilots build on the government’s work to tackle obesity, reducing pressure on the NHS and cutting waiting lists

More people living with obesity will have access to the newest and most effective obesity drugs to help cut NHS waiting lists, following the announcement of a £40 million two-year pilot today [Wednesday 7 June].

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended the use of Semaglutide (Wegovy) for adults with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related health condition – such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Other drugs are currently under consideration in clinical trials.

There is evidence from clinical trials that, when prescribed alongside diet, physical activity and behavioural support, people taking a weight-loss drug can lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight after one year. Taking them alongside diet, physical activity and behavioural support can help people lose weight within the first month of treatment.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of severe health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, and it costs the NHS £6.5 billion a year. There were more than 1 million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019/2020 where obesity was a factor.

Using the latest treatments to tackle obesity will contribute to cutting waiting lists by reducing the number of people who suffer from weight-related illnesses, who tend to need more support from the NHS and could end up needing operations linked to their weight – such as gallstone removal or hip and knee replacements.

NICE advise that Wegovy should only be available via specialist weight management services, which are largely hospital-based. This would mean only around 35,000 people would have access to Wegovy when tens of thousands more could be eligible.

The £40 million pilots will explore how approved drugs can be made safely available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside of hospital settings. This includes looking at how GPs could safely prescribe these drugs and how the NHS can provide support in the community or digitally - contributing to the government’s wider ambition to reduce pressure on hospitals and give people access to the care they need where it is most convenient for them.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: Obesity puts huge pressure on the NHS.

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.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer.

This next generation of obesity drugs has the potential to help people lose significant amounts of weight when prescribed with exercise, diet and behavioural support.

Tackling obesity will help to reduce pressure on the NHS and cut waiting times, one of the government’s five priorities, and this pilot will help people live longer healthier lives.

Health Minister Neil O’Brien said: We know that obesity puts additional pressure on the NHS and is linked to a whole host of health problems – including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Expanding how to access these innovative new drugs will ensure as many eligible patients as possible have the opportunity to try these treatments if they are right for them to help achieve a healthier weight.

These pilots build on our ongoing work to tackle obesity – including introducing calorie labelling on menus to empower people to make informed decisions and investing in school sports to give children an active start in life.

NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: Tackling obesity is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan – it can have devastating consequences for the nation’s health, leading to serious health conditions and some common cancers as well as resulting in significant pressure on NHS services.

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.

NICE is also considering the potential NHS use of another drug known as Tirzepatide – which is currently licenced to treat diabetes but may also help with weight loss – if it receives a license for weight loss in the coming months.

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.

Losing weight can help to reduce the risk of obesity-related illness which in turn can reduce pressure on the NHS, cut waiting times, and realise wider economic benefits.

The pilot builds on the firm action the government is already taking to tackle obesity, including:

  • Introducing calorie labelling on menus, which is expected to bring health benefits of £4.6 billion and provide NHS savings of £430 million

  • Restrictions on the location of unhealthy foods in shops are expected to bring health benefits of over £57 billion and provide NHS savings of over £4 billion over the next 25 years

  • Introducing the Soft Drinks Industry Levy which has seen the average sugar content of drinks decrease by 46 per cent between 2015 and 2020

  • Investment to boost school sports to help children and young people have an active start to life.

Last year the government announced £ 20 million for the Office of Life Science’s Obesity Mission. This will explore innovative ways to best utilise promising medicines and digital technologies to help NHS patients achieve a healthy weight.

The Better Health: Rewards App is also being piloted in Wolverhampton. It is offering incentives such as vouchers for shops, gym discounts and cinema tickets for people who eat healthily and exercise more.

The 2019 Health Survey for England estimated that over 12 million adults were living with obesity – 28 per cent of the population in England – while a further 16 million (36 per cent) were overweight. This means that around two-thirds of the adult population were above a healthy weight – defined as having a BMI of 25 or above.

  • DHSC launched a call for evidence in May to inform the Major Conditions Strategy, including further work to tackle obesity.


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