The number of items for obesity prescribed in primary care dropped by 17% in 2020, continuing a decade-long downward trend, the latest figures show.
Data published today (18 May) by NHS Digital revealed that the number had dropped to 294,000 from 355,000 items in 2019. This compares to 485,256 items in 2015 and 1.08 million at the start of the decade.
Since 2010, Orlistat – a drug which reduces the absorption of dietary fat – has been the only drug available in the UK recommended specifically for the management of obesity.
The dataset showed that prescription items per 1,000 population was highest in the North West (9) commissioning region, followed by North East and Yorkshire (8) and London (7), while the South East had the lowest rate (4).
Meanwhile, NHS Barnsley Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) had the highest prescription rate of all CCGs, with 17 items per 1,000 population, followed by NHS Stoke on Trent (16) and NHS Knowsley (15).
NHS Bury, NHS Nene and NHS Mansfield and Ashfield CGGs all recorded almost zero rates, the data showed.
Current clinical guidelines state that pharmacological interventions should only be used alongside other interventions, including behavioural changes like diet and exercise.
In July 2020, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced it would be expanding NHS weight management services, with doctors offered incentives through QOF, as part of its national obesity strategy.
Increase in obesity-related hospital admissions
The NHS Digital data also showed that there were more than one million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019/20 where obesity was a factor.
It showed that a total of 1.02 million Finished Admission Episodes were recorded with obesity as a primary or secondary diagnosis, with women accounting for almost two-thirds (64%) of these.
This marks an increase of 17% on 2018/19, however NHS Digital said some of this may be due to improved recording.
In 2019/20 there were 10,780 hospital admissions directly attributable to obesity – a decrease of 3% on 2018/19.
Meanwhile, these admissions were more than three times likely in the most deprived areas (31 per 100,000 population) compared to the least deprived areas (9 per 100,000).
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said: ‘Today’s shocking figures are a growing sign of the nation’s obesity crisis which is putting hundreds of thousands of people at greater risk of becoming severely ill with Covid, as well as heart attacks, stroke, cancer and other deadly diseases.’
He added that carrying extra weight places a strain on personal health and on the health service, and that ‘there has never been a better time’ to change lifestyle behaviours as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
Last week, NHS England also told GP practices they can now refer patients into NHS Digital’s new weight management programme.
The system will triage patients based on four characteristics associated with lower likelihood of completing the Digital Diabetes Prevention Programme, including living in a deprived area. It will also consider younger age, being from a BAME background, and being male.