The Government is looking at how GPs could safely prescribe obesity drugs, as part of plans to reduce pressure on the NHS and cutting waiting lists.
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 Government has announced today.
However the BMA warned that GP workload would need to be taken into account once the scheme was rolled out more widely.
In March, NICE recommended injectable prescription medication semaglutide (Wegovy) for use as part of a patient’s treatment in an NHS specialist weight management service and with the support of a multi-disciplinary team.
It said the drug should be prescribed to adults who have at least one weight-related comorbidity and a BMI of at least 35kg/m2, alongside a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity.
The Government said the new pilots will build on work to ‘tackle obesity, reducing pressure on the NHS and cutting waiting lists’.
It said that 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.
NICE is also considering potential NHS use of Tirzepatide, a first-of-its-kind in the treatment of adults with type 2 diabetes, which could help with weight loss.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5bn a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer.
‘This next generation of obesity drugs have 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 sport to give children an active start in life.’
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.’
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.’
But BMA board of science chair Professor David Strain warned there was ‘a need for greater clarity on whether this scheme will be funded from a new package or existing NHS budgets’.
‘With the waiting list now surpassing seven million, we simply cannot afford for vital services elsewhere to be cut as moving investment from one part of the health services to another will not reduce overall demand.
‘It is also essential that this funding does not come at the expense of upstream preventative strategies, such as delivering on the long-delayed existing policy commitments around junk food advertising on pre-watershed TV and online. The Government must create the opportunities for everyone, particularly our children, to be able to eat healthily and have access to open spaces for recreation.’
The BMA also warned that GP workload must be taken into account once the scheme is rolled out more widely.
‘Given the significant pressures that general practice is under, it is crucial that when the scheme is rolled out more widely, primary care is in a position to be able to deliver it in a way that is sustainable,’ said Dr Strain.
‘The Government must ensure that general practice has the right resources to support an intervention that, although will improve the quality of lives of thousands of people in the long term, will take a considerable time to realise the benefits on the health service.’
The Government also said NHS England is working to implement recommendations from NICE to make this new class of treatment available to patients through established specialist weight management services.