LONDON, June 7 (PTI): British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday unveiled a two-year pilot scheme to reduce pressures on the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) which will see general practitioners (GPs) prescribe “game-changer” anti-obesity drugs to patients with at least one weight-related health condition.
The British Indian leader, whose father Yashvir is a retired GP, said obesity puts additional pressure on the NHS and helping people lose weight would help cut waiting lists for access to procedures in the health service.
Under the GBP 40-million two-year pilot scheme, the NHS will explore how approved drugs can be made safely available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside of hospital settings.
“Obesity puts huge pressure on the NHS,” said Sunak.
“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,” he said.
According to NHS data, obesity is one of the leading causes of severe health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer and costs the health service GBP 6.5 billion a year.
Earlier this year, the UK’s 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 also under consideration in clinical trials, which had indicated 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, experts said.
“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,” said UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
His department claims there were more than one million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019-2020 where obesity was a factor.
Using the latest treatments to tackle obesity will contribute to 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.
“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,” said UK Health Minister Neil O’Brien.
NICE advice says that Wegovy should only be available via specialist weight management services, which are largely hospital-based.
This means only around 35,000 people would have access to Wegovy when many more could be eligible.
Therefore, the new pilot scheme is set to 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.
“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,” said NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis.
NICE is also considering the potential NHS use of another drug known as Tirzepatide – which is currently licensed to treat diabetes but may also help with weight loss – if it receives a license for weight loss in the coming months.
NHS England said it 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 for the British taxpayer.