As Ozempic use skyrockets, UCLA’s program for reducing obesity sees rapid growth

Ozempic and Wegovy may not be the silver bullets we hoped for, especially for the patients most at need.
Weighing scale in doctors office

Semaglutide drugs Ozempic and Wegovy – used for diabetes and weight loss respectively -- have boomed in usage. One report found that about 1.7% of people in the US were prescribed a semaglutide medication in 2023, up 40-fold over the past five years.

Yet despite the increase in popularity of these medications, obesity continues to sharply increase across the US, with the prevalence exceeding 40% in 2023 compared to 35% in 2022.

And the impacts continue to be felt unequally. If anything, the disparities are worsening as obesity prevalence is notably highest among Black and Latino adults, people living in rural communities, and low-income communities. Those same populations face the most significant barriers to accessing semaglutide drugs.

Suffice to say, Ozempic and Wegovy are not the silver bullets we hoped they’d be, especially for the patient populations most at need, according to Na Shen, MD, endocrinologist for UCLA Health. Programs designed to manage patients with obesity in ways that are accessible, holistic, and destigmatizing are essential.

Our medical weight-loss program is uniquely positioned as covered by insurance.

Contact the Program for Reducing Obesity (PRO) at UCLA Health

“There’s a huge need for high quality obesity treatment,” Shen explains, “but there just aren’t enough providers or primary care physicians simply don’t have enough time given the many components involved in holistic obesity treatment. There’s only so much you can counsel on in one visit.”

In response to this growing need, Dr. Shen founded the Program for Reducing Obesity (PRO) in 2019 at the UCLA Thousand Oaks clinic. The goal of the program was to provide education and treatment to patients who may be at highest risk of having obesity-related complications and yet may face the greatest barriers in accessing treatment – such as high costs and shortages of the most popular weight loss drugs.

Accessible care

To help mitigate those hurdles, Dr. Shen structured the PRO to be as accessible and dynamic as possible, through an insurance-supported design that offers both individual visits and shared medical appointments. 

Services include personalized medical and nutritional weight management, comprehensive diagnosis and management of related hormonal and metabolic disorders, body fat assessment, and group nutrition classes on weight loss and maintenance.

The innovative program is unique in its built-in support for patients -- many of whom were in want of obesity treatment but could not access it due to factors such as insurance restrictions and lack of local weight management programs. As a result, the success and impact of the program has been resounding based both on peer-reviewed research and patient testimonies, leading to significant program expansion in just the past year.  

Further research found that patients from PRO were able to maintain an average weight loss of almost 8% at long term follow up of 2 years.

Combatting the epidemic

In 2022, PRO consisted of just four obesity medicine certified endocrinologists at three sites -- Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, and Downtown). 

Today, PRO consists of nine obesity medicine certified endocrinologists and primary care physicians across six sites in Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, Ventura, Burbank, Downtown and Santa Monica. Shared medical appointments are also conducted remotely to promote broader access.

The project underscores the value of high-quality obesity treatment, and why more providers and PCPs should be trained in obesity treatment, which is complex and requires ample time and holistic approaches, says Dr. Shen.

"For a lot of people," Dr. Shen shares, "even those on new life changing weight loss medications like Ozempic and Wegovy, it takes a combination of intensive lifestyle intervention, anti-obesity medications and even surgical interventions to optimally treat obesity — reflecting that obesity treatment should really be collaborative and multi-modal. It’s not either/or anymore, even in the age of Ozempic."

Dr. Shen also emphasizes that to make any strides in combatting the obesity epidemic, stigma must be stamped out. 

"There is no place for patient shaming,” she says. “There are so many factors including hormones, genetics and environment involved, and so many myths and barriers that we’re trying to work through. Obesity is a chronic condition and should be treated just like any other chronic disease without the stigma, which only worsens the issue."

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