Rishi Sunak said using new drugs to combat obesity could be a “game-changer” as he announced a £40m pilot scheme to increase access to specialist weight management services.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) gave approval for the use of appetite suppressant Wegovy earlier this year, but 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 having access to the treatment when tens of thousands more could be eligible under the criteria of having a body mass index of at least 35 and one weight-related condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
A £40m two-year pilot will explore how approved drugs can be made available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside hospitals.
This includes looking at how GPs could safely prescribe the drugs and how the NHS can provide support in the community or online.
The Prime Minister 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.”
Officials said evidence 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 per cent of their body weight after one year, with results apparent within the first month.
There were more than 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.
Wegovy is a weight-loss injection popular with celebrities – Twitter and Tesla tycoon Elon Musk has said he uses it to stay in shape.
Nice recommended semaglutide – the drug also known as Wegovy, which is 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.
NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “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 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, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said: “Shifting some of this care safely into primary care is worth exploring as it makes sense for patients to access care within the community, where safe and appropriate, but this would need to be matched with sufficient resource and funding to account for the increased workload.
“Any plans to expand the availability of semaglutide in primary care must also be done based on evidence of long-term benefit to patients – and sufficient availability of the drug must be ensured ahead of any roll-out, so as not to raise patients’ expectations, as there may be a significant number of people who would benefit from it.”