Can you get Weight Watchers membership on the NHS?

Should taxpayers fund slimming clubs?

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feet on a scale in a bathroom close up

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended that GPs should prescribe more Weight Watchers memberships on the NHS. They already spend £800,000 a year on sending the most obese patients to slimming classes - but the watchdog has said that many more should be referred.

So who is eligible for free classes, and is this fair?

GPs are already encouraged to send obese patients to slimming classes - particularly prioritising those who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, the new guidance suggests that overweight patients (who are not yet heavy enough to be classed as obese) ought to be eligible for the classes too.

Saving money

The idea is that weight issues cost the NHS a small fortune. Obesity is said to cost an estimated £5.1 billion each year. And things are not getting better by themselves - in fact they have deteriorated to the point where more than a quarter of adults are now classed as obese and 42% of men and a third of women classed are overweight.

Classes are one of the most effective ways to encourage people to lose weight. Gill Fine, independent public health nutritionist and Chair of the group which developed the NICE guidance, said: "Obesity is one of the biggest health issues facing the UK. It's a complex problem with no single solution, but programmes which aim to help people manage their weight can make a difference."

"What we have done in this new guidance is to identify the key components that need to be included in these programmes for them to be effective. These include setting realistic weight loss and weight maintenance goals, ensuring the programme is at least 12 weeks long and making sure the people running the programme are properly trained. We hope that these practical recommendations will help people make life-long lifestyle changes so they lose weight and most importantly help prevent those pounds from coming back."

They recognise that not every person who attends classes is going to lose weight - or keep it off. However, they highlight that weighing even marginally less can improve the health of people who are overweight or obese and lower their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. They say that losing as little as 3% of your body weight will make a significant difference.

This, in turn will save the NHS money - and will work out as more cost-effective in the long run than letting people struggle alone until they reach the point that their weight is damaging their health.

For those with a weight problem, who have tried and failed to go-it alone, this is an eminently sensible idea. These classes aren't just a nice little freebie: they offer vital support and advice for people who may not fully understand the habits they need to develop in order to lose weight.

Carol Weir, head of service for nutrition and dietetics at Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust and NICE guidance developer, said that not only was it vital to offer these classes - but to do it in the right way too. She says: "We found that a lot of overweight or obese people were put off seeking help because they felt that they were being blamed for being unable to lose weight and the position they have found themselves in. Therefore the guidance also recommends that doctors and other health professionals should ensure the tone they use when communicating with people who need help with their weight is respectful and non-judgemental."

Failings

There are those who question the scheme, however. An NHS study showed that a third of people drop out of a 12 week course without completing it. Even those who complete the course and hit their goals aren't then 'cured' of obesity. A study by Weight Watchers in 2007 found that four fifths of those who hit their weight loss goals had regained the weight after two years, and that almost five in six regained it after five years.

The rough calculations mean that if 100 people start a course (at a cost of £5,000), then 67 of them will complete the course, but after two years only 13 of them will have kept the weight off, and only 8 will still be thinner after five years. £5,000 is a lot to spend on a marginal weight loss for eight people. However, if just one of them doesn't get type 2 diabetes with complications as a result, the classes will have been an excellent investment.

But what do you think? Do you believe that NICE is right and that losing even a small amount of weight will make enough difference to justify the cost, or is this a waste of money for the cash-strapped NHS?

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