NHS doctors in England could soon be allowed to prescribe more people with Wegovy (semaglutide) under a new pilot scheme. It is hoped the two-year pilot will help cut waiting lists on the overstretched National Health Service (NHS), given obesity is a leading cause of severe health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
The government has been targeting obesity in recent years, introducing calorie labelling on menus and restricting the location of unhealthy foods in stores. An official 2019 health survey in England estimated that over 12 million adults were living with obesity - 28 percent of the population - while a further 16 million (36 percent) were overweight.
"Obesity puts huge pressure on the NHS," Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement unveiling the new £40 million (US$50 million) pilot. "Using the latest drugs to support people to lose weight will be a game-changer by helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions.”
The move follows clinical trials that found Wegovy can help adults with obesity lose up to 15 percent of their body weight when prescribed alongside diet, physical activity and behavioural support.
Earlier this year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) approved the use of one appetite suppressant, Wegovy, but limited its availability to specialist services which are largely hospital-based. Adults with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related health condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, are currently considered. That makes around 35,000 people eligible for Wegovy. NICE stated patients can access Wegovy for a maximum of two years, via specialist weight-management services.
The two-year pilot could significantly expand access to tens of thousands of further potential recipients, while other drugs are also under consideration in clinical trials. The scheme will explore how approved drugs can be made safely available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside of hospital settings. That will include examining how GPs could safely prescribe weight-loss drugs and how the NHS could provide support in the community or digitally.
However, NHS England is still negotiating a "secure long-term supply of the products at prices that represent value for money taxpayers," a government statement warned.
There are currently two other weight loss medications available on the NHS: Xenical (generic name Orlistat) which is a capsule, and Saxenda which is a brand name for liraglutide, a type of GLP-1 analogue that is injected daily. Orlistat works by limiting the amount of fat your body absorbs from the food you eat. There is another brand name for Orlistat which is called alli and this can be bought without prescription. Other injections, such as Ozempic and Mounjaro, which work in much the same way as Wegovy but are designed to treat diabetes, have not yet been approved for NHS use specifically for weight loss.
"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,” added NHS Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis.
The government claims obesity costs the NHS in England £6.5 billion a year, with more than one million hospital admissions linked to obesity in 2019-20.