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This study seeks to examine whether NHS referral to a commercial weight loss treatment provider is cost-effective in helping people to lose weight and keep it off. We also aim to understand the patient experience of weight loss treatment.

Why is this important?

Overweight and obesity is a serious public health issue due to its high prevalence and association with illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Early treatment and prevention are important if we are to reduce the health problems associated with excess weight, but there are few treatments available through the National Health Service (NHS) and those that are available can be very costly when we consider the number of people requiring treatment. It is in the interests of the NHS to offer (cost-effective) weight loss treatment options, as they spend £4.2 billion each year on treating illness related to overweight and obesity. The cost to the wider community is estimated at £16 billion.

Previous research has shown that referring a patient for 12 sessions with a commercial weight loss provider can produce an amount of weight loss which has significant health benefits. These referral packages are offered to the NHS at a discounted price, however no studies have formally evaluated the cost-effectiveness of this approach. This study will examine whether the money spent on treatment is worthwhile when we consider the effect of improved health for patients and also potential cost savings on treatments for weight-related illness. But weight regain is common after weight loss treatment stops and it may be that 12 weeks is not long enough to develop long term changes in behaviour.

Previous research has shown that many adults with overweight and obesity do not consider this to be a medical problem and this may influence their attitudes to receiving treatment through the NHS. By improving our understanding of attitudes and experience of treatment, we can improve the way weight management is provided by the NHS.


In our trial, 1200 adults with overweight and obesity will be identified by their GP and recruited by the research team. The research team will randomly assign participants to one of three treatment groups - a 12 session referral to a commercial provider, a 12 month referral to a commercial provider, or a 'brief intervention' (standard information about how to lose weight and weighing at follow up). We will follow participants up at 3 months, 12 months and 24 months (1 year after treatment has finished) to compare the amount of weight lost by participants in each group.

We will also look at how many participants in each group lose an amount of weight that is associated with significant health improvements. We will use this and other data collected during the trial to examine which treatment option offers the best value for money. This will be examined over the short term (the duration of the trial) and the longer term, using long term modelling of anticipated health changes and associated costs. We will also interview a subset of participants to gain a more holistic view of the patient experience and to explore their attitudes to weight loss treatment and NHS-commercial partnerships.

This research will provide important information to GPs and NHS treatment commissioners about which treatment option is most effective and which offers best value for money. Trial results and findings from interviews will help inform future decisions about NHS-commercial partnership.

HOw could this benefit patients?

It is anticipated that by improving the evidence base for primary care weight loss treatment, findings will help improve weight loss treatment provision in the UK NHS, thus having a direct benefit for patient and population health and quality of life. Practitioners will benefit from better evidence on which to base treatment decisions, and in time will perhaps benefit from better choice and availability of treatment options and referral pathways. 

Further information:

Full project title:

A randomised controlled trial to test the clinical and cost-effectiveness of primary care referral to a commercial weight loss provider.

Length of project:

Sept 12 – Jul 16


Medical Research Council Logo

External collaborators:

  • Principal Investigator – Amy Louise Ahern, MRC Human Nutrition Research Group

WRAP - Primary Care Clinical Trials Unit