The NHS has announced a £40m pilot to explore ways to make specialist drugs accessible to patients living with obesity outside of hospital settings.

But one pharmacy leader has called attention to ongoing problems with supply of semaglutide and emphasised that pharmaceutical interventions must be supported by diet and lifestyle changes.

The pilot, announced today, would explore how specialist weight management services could be expanded outside of hospital settings.

In particular, it suggested that Wegovy (semaglutide), which has recently been approved by NICE for weight loss under specialist services that are usually hospital based, could be extended to ‘tens of thousands’ more eligible patients.

Weight-loss drugs could be prescribed by GPs

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that the pilot would explore how GPs could safely prescribe weight loss drugs.

‘This next generation of obesity drugs have the potential to help people lose significant amounts of weight, when prescribed with exercise, diet and behavioural support,’ said health and social care secretary Steve Barclay.

However, there has been ongoing concerns related to the supply of semaglutide, which is marketed under brand names Ozempic and Wegovy.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), told The Pharmacist that community pharmacy practitioners running weight management programmes did not know when the drug would be available, due to the already high demand for the product.

In December 2022, community pharmacy chain Boots announced its plans for a Wegovy-based private weight-loss service, but that has yet to be launched.

In October, the European Medicines Agency said that shortages of Ozempic were expected to continue throughout 2023, affecting patients with type 2 diabetes who also use the drug to manage their long-term condition.

And as recently as last month, the DHSC issued a medicine supply notification that said that Ozempic 1mg solution for injection was out of stock, while the Ozempic 0.5mg solution for injection could only support a partial uplift in demand.

Pharmacist Mark Burdon previously suggested in a blog for The Pharmacist that patients were influenced by TikTok, Instagram and other media to ask prescribers for weight-loss drugs like Ozempic.

NHS could support community-based services

DHSC said that the pilot would also explore how the NHS can provide support in the community or digitally.

Dr Hannbeck added that pharmacists were best placed to advise patients on the lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise, that needed to accompany weight-loss medication.

‘If the government really wants to tackle all of these things, they should really start investing in pharmacy. We have a track record in terms of supporting people and being very good at prevention,’ she said.

Meanwhile, NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: ‘Pharmaceutical treatments offer a new way of helping people with obesity gain a healthier weight and this new pilot will help determine if these medicines can be used safely and effectively in non-hospital settings as well as a range of other interventions we have in place.’

The DHSC said that NICE is also considering potential NHS use of Tirzepatide, which is currently licensed to treat diabetes, if it receives a license for weight loss in the coming months.