Health systems double down on weight loss programs

By 2030, 51% of the world's population, or 4 billion people, are expected to have obesity, according to trends tracked by the World Obesity Federation

As glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists like Ozempic and Mounjaro surge in popularity and influence economies around the world, health systems are magnifying their weight management programs. 

Laura Davisson, MD, is the director of WVU Medicine's medical weight management program. This year, the system's program for employees and their dependents is growing from 96 to 250 participants. Already, the comprehensive care has resulted in an average 16.54% weight loss. 

"Employees want this benefit: There are surveys out there showing that people will leave a job for obesity treatment coverage," Dr. Davisson told Becker's. "So it's just really important to figure out a strategy."

In a 9amHealth survey of 1,300 Americans, more than 67% of respondents said they would stay at a job they didn't like for weight loss medication coverage. Another 20% said they would consider changing jobs for GLP-1s. 

The program at Morgantown, W.Va.-based WVU Medicine deploys care teams that monitor data and track what factors lead to the best outcomes. Obesity, a complex condition, needs a complex care plan, including nutrition, physical activity, behavior change, and medical interventions such as bariatric surgery or weight loss medications. 

The GLP-1 industry is thriving, with estimates placing the market's worth at $100 billion by 2030. Meanwhile, drug shortages of the starter doses, insurance barriers and high costs are causing access issues. Dr. Davisson said it's a careful balance when deciding between a GLP-1 or an older weight loss drug.

Patients are viewing GLP-1s as "solution" therapies, and while the drug class is safe and profoundly effective, they aren't a magic fix. Fewer people respond to the older options, but if supply can't meet demand, more shortages will be on the horizon. 

"I think people forget that there are other medications," she said.

Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic is also pushing further into weight management services, as its weight loss program recently launched a weight loss telemedicine service. 

Mayo Clinic's Andres Acosta, MD, PhD, told Becker's there was too much "noise" in the weight loss telehealth industry. 

"When we were seeing what was happening out there and what we were doing, we said, there's a big disconnect," Dr. Acosta said.

More physicians are now comfortable treating obesity, Dr. Acosta said, and weight loss programs help with the lift by supplying dietitians, wellness coaches and physical therapists.

In 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease. In the decade since, mindsets are shifting away from categorizing obesity as a behavioral choice.

"People are finally starting to understand the concept that obesity is a disease," said Dr. Davisson, who added, "People argue about that still."

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