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Are the new weight-loss medications the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for?

What the newly released weight-loss drugs mean for employers—and how they can best take advantage of these new offerings.

Dr. Tim Church, MD, MPH, PhD, Wondr Health Chief Medical Officer, dives deeper into what the newly released weight-loss drugs mean—and how employers can best take advantage of these new offerings. 

Over the last few months, there have been numerous news stories, blogs, and general e-sphere writings about the new weight-loss medications. The current and pending FDA approved medications are thought to be a game-changers—with 17-23% average weight loss and substantial benefits to blood sugar control, blood pressure, lipids and inflammation. All this, combined with a minimal/moderate side-effect profile quickly leads to the question: Putting costs aside for now, are these medications the non-surgical weight loss silver bullet that we have been waiting for?  

For weight loss, of course the answer is straight forward.  The answer is both yes and no. These new medications greatly improve the number on the scale, but when used in isolation, they fail to treat the whole patient. Let’s dive in…. a comprehensive behavioral weight-loss program addresses stress, anxiety, resilience, nutrition, sleep, alcohol, and physical activity.  As an obesity researcher and physician, my philosophy is to “treat the patient, not the number on the scale”. While these new medications clearly have great impact on the scale, their use without an evidence-based behavioral program has the potential to result in only a fraction of the achievable clinical benefits…. and the science strongly supports this.   

The data is clear that when a strong behavioral program—particularly one that promotes physical activity—is combined with these new medications, the weight loss will be greater and last longer.  In fact, I wouldn’t recommend that an employer pay for these medications without a behavioral component as a requirement. Here’s why: a comprehensive behavioral program provides a whole person approach to helping patients and allows for a better opportunity to address the original source of the weight gain. Ultimately, treating the root cause contributes to more sustainable outcomes. Weight gain and weight loss are complicated processes that are driven by multiple factors. Focusing only on the number on the scale fails to address why the patient gained the weight in the first place.  Stress, poor sleep habits, alcohol, inactivity, and many other modifiable factors contribute to weight gain and overall health. Generating weight loss, without addressing key lifestyle behaviors, does not optimize patient care. 

The manufacturers, the FDA, and the package insert will all mention the importance of a healthy diet and physical activity, but we all know how ineffective these messages are. I believe is it up to the patients, payers, and carriers to demand that these new weight-loss medications be combined with an evidence-based comprehensive behavioral program. This will provide the most benefit to the patient, the payer, the carriers, and ultimately, the manufacturer. If employers are looking to implement these new weight- loss medications, they should consider supplemental programs that utilize clinically proven cognitive behavioral strategies. These can easily fit within their existing solutions, and address not just the scale, but the whole person  to make the biggest impact on the health of their people and their bottom line.

Want to learn more about weight-loss medications? Join Dr. Tim Church and Dr. Donna Ryan, MD, Former President of World Obesity Federation in “Clinical Conversations: Weight Loss Medications” as they dive deeper into what these new medications are and how employers can best take advantage of them.

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