6:39am

Thu September 8, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Weight-Loss Program Beats Doctor's Advice To Shed Pounds

Doctors are supposed to help overweight patients lose weight, since those extra pounds boost the risk of diabetes, heart disease and many other illnesses. But those patients might be better off going to Weight Watchers, according to new research. And, a second study finds, paying for weight-loss programs now may reduce health care costs over the long haul.

People who participated in the commercial weight-loss program Weight Watchers lost twice as much weight as people who were advised by their doctors on weight loss. The Weight Watcher group lost an average of 11 pounds over a year, compared to five pounds in the doctor's advice group. The study was just published in the Lancet.

These results need to be taken with a few chunky grains of salt, though. Almost half of the study's 772 participants dropped out before the year was out, and the reported results don't reflect the dropouts, who probably had less success.

Also, the study was funded by Weight Watchers, which provided a year of free membership for each participant. (All the major diet plans typically fund their own research.) Fees for the program in the United States run about $40 per month.

Still, a commentary accompanying the article notes that in some parts of England, where the study took place, national health insurance already pays for Weight Watchers and other commercial weight-loss programs. That's not true in the U.S., where people usually have to pay their own way.

But a second study suggests that paying for weight-loss programs for pre-diabetic baby boomers could shave billions of dollars off of future Medicaid costs.

Those researchers looked at the YMCA's Diabetes Prevention Program, which uses group classes on nutrition and exercise to encourage people to lose 7 percent of their body weight, and exercise 150 minutes a week. It costs about $240 a person for a 16- to 20-week program, and is currently available through 50 YMCAs in 26 states.

People lost about 6 percent of their weight over six months in one study of the program, and sustained that weight loss for more than a year. Studies of the program have found that it reduces participants' risk of developing diabetes by up to 71 percent.

If the federal government paid for overweight people in their early 60s to participate in the YMCA program, it would save the Medicare program $1.8 to $2.3 billion dollars in the following 10 years. "Those people would be healthier when they entered the Medicare program," Kenneth Thorpe, an economist and professor of health policy at Emory University, told Shots. The study was published in the September Health Affairs.

The high and low numbers are based on the 70 percent participation rate in the YMCA clinical trial, and the 55 percent rate typical of good workplace wellness programs. Medicare spending is 15 to 35 percent higher in people who are obese at age 65, compared to people of normal weight.

Thorpe and his colleagues liked the concept so much they applied it to aging baby boomers with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. If the government paid for those folks to take the YMCA program, it could increase the Medicare cost savings to $3.7 billion over 10 years.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding some of the YMCA diabetes prevention programs, and insurer UnitedHealth Group said last year that it will pay for the program for people in selected markets in Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, and Minnesota.

There are 2,686 YMCAs nationwide, Thorpe notes, and 60 million Americans live within 3 miles of a branch. But other community organizations, including local health departments or nonprofit organizations, could sponsor similar prevention programs.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.