Streamlining health care: Is Weight Watchers a fix for the obesity crisis?

By Brandon Ransom

David Kirchhoff, CEO of Weight Watchers International, shocked the Healthcare Centered Consumer Innovation conference by announcing that Weight Watchers wants to be treated as a healthcare company, its franchises viewed as a nationwide network of obesity clinics.

Kirchhoff says that while primary care doctors could play a much larger role in combating the obesity epidemic, they are burdened by time and training constraints. Because of this heavy physician burden, Weight Watchers believes that the responsibility of weight management can be outsourced to community-based organizations like Weight Watchers.  Kirchhoff proposes that primary care practices form bridges with community care models with the backing of insurance company reimbursements.

Here’s how the process could work. Patient goes to see a primary care physician. After measurements are taken, the patient learns that his or her BMI is above 30. The physician then has a conversation with the patient about the health consequences of being obese, then refers the patient to a private organization like Weight Watchers. The patient attends the program and the cost is covered by insurance. The doctor periodically checks the patient’s progress.

While it has not yet been tried on a large scale, pilot studies have been performed.  A 2011 Lancet article compared primary care referral systems for weight loss with commercial providers (Weight Watchers) as opposed to standard care.  In this randomized control trial, 772 overweight and obese adults were recruited in Australia, Germany, and the UK.  Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 12 months of standard care (as defined by national guidelines) or 12 months of free membership to a commercial program (Weight Watchers) and were followed for 12 months.

Of those assigned to the commercial program, 61% adhered to the program for 12 months, which was a fairly incredible feat for a weight loss program, and 51% adhered to the 12-month standard care program.  The group that received treatment from Weight Watchers lost twice as much weight as those in the standard care group.  This study, as well as several similar ones, has given Weight Watchers confidence that it offers a clinically useful intervention for weight management in overweight and obese individuals and potentially could lower the incidence of chronic disease.

Weight Watchers is an organization that has a proven track record.  Their Point Plus system of dieting has been proven effective. The algorithm takes into account a food’s protein, fat, carbs and fiber to come up with a score.  Each member is given a personalized Point Plus target to help guide them on how to eat and lose weight safely while being satisfied. The system offers a  flexible way for Weight Watchers participants to plan their diets. No foods are forbidden. Instead, participants are encouraged to make wiser choices when it comes to eating.

Weight Watchers plans to incentivize patients adhering to primary care referrals through providing insurance discounts to patients that stick have high adherence to their insurance sponsored plan.  Adherence will be measured on a tiered system that rewards those that follow their weight loss plan and penalizes those that don’t.

Weight Watchers believes that Insurance companies will be willing to pair with them, because the best insurance customer is a healthy insurance customer.  Customers that contribute to contribute to the pool, but uses limited services are the source of most insurance profits.  Incentivizing prevention programs such as weight watchers could lower the overall cost that insurance agencies and reap higher long term returns.

Kirchhoff is a firm believer that the community aspect of Weight Watchers can and will make a difference in the way that overweight individuals approach healthcare.  Gone will be the days where guidance on weight loss is a luxury.  Weight Watchers is looking to provide a universal way for anyone looking to lose weight to get the help that they need.

For now, just how the price would be set for such private weight control services remains unclear. It’s quite possible that insurance reimbursement for these services will create new opportunities for health and nutrition specialists with weight management experience. The integration of behavioral change clinics could provide a nationwide platform for individuals that specialize in nutrition, opening a variety of new funding sources for grants around health maintenance and weight loss.

Brandon Ransom holds a BS in Biology from Morehouse College and is a second year FPAN student specializing in Entrepreneurship and Management in Health and Nutrition. As aspiring inventor/entrepreneur in health and nutrition, he hopes to use technology to help solve the current obesity epidemic.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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