GPs should refer patients to year-long weight management programmes rather than the current NICE-recommended 12-week programmes.
That is the finding of a new randomised controlled trial, presented this month in the Lancet, which concluded this would reduce the risk of patients developing diabetes and heart disease and save the NHS money in the longer term.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge recruited over 1,000 people with a BMI of 28 or higher from 23 GP practices, dividing these into three groups.
The first group received brief advice and self-help material; the second group were referred for the NICE-recommended 12-week Weight Watchers programme; and the third group a 12-month Weight Watchers programme.
The researchers found that the 12-week programme was more effective than the advice and self-help option, but the full-year weight-loss scheme was even more effective.
After one year, people who received brief advice lost an average of just over 3kg. Those on the 12-week programme lost 4.75 kg, while those who attended Weight Watchers for a year lost over 6.7 kg.
And, in addition to losing more weight, the people in this group also showed improvements in markers of diabetes and heart disease risk, which were still significant at two years.
The researchers also modelled the cost-effectiveness of the scheme, finding that although it initially costs more than the current NHS standard, the 52-week programme is more cost-effective in the long term due to reductions in disease.
The authors therefore recommend that healthcare providers consider extending weight loss referral schemes.
The researchers, who were funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative and Weight Watchers International (as part of an UK Medical Research Council Industrial Collaboration Award), said: ‘We… show, for the first time to our knowledge, that this extended referral achieves improvements in fasting glucose concentration and glycated haemoglobin equivalent to more intensive health professional-led interventions.
‘Using microsimulation modelling, we show for the first time that, over a 25-year period, the 12-week programme is cost-saving compared with a brief intervention, and that the 52-week programme is cost-effective compared with the 12-week programme.’