Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at PlushCare, a leading virtual health platform.
We’ve entered a new era in the “weight loss” discussion. In 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved semaglutide for weight loss. Since then, the use of GLP-1 agonist medications has risen dramatically, partly due to the growing popularity of using the medications “off label” for weight loss, as popularized by social media trends. Prescriptions for these medications were up 152% in February this year in comparison to February 2022.
It’s no surprise that many people are requesting these new medications in droves. But this has also left some employers pondering about whether they should cover these drugs. Overall, the sudden increase in demand has put a spotlight on how healthcare technology companies assess patients’ weight management needs and prescribe medication.
Virtual care companies must set a high bar for how technology is applied to provide this medication to patients and best support their long-term health goals. To do this effectively, I propose a three-part prescription for technology use in weight management:
1. Foster strong patient-doctor relationships for effective and holistic weight management
Quality weight management treatment should not be reserved for celebrities and influencers, nor should it be accessible only for those who have a doctor in their neighborhood. Through healthcare technology, like telehealth, patients now have more access to quality care, including weight management, than ever before. However, more access does not mean “quick fix” solutions and over-prescribed medications. To effectively address patients’ weight management goals, it’s important to look at the whole patient, meaning both their physical and behavioral needs. To do this, telehealth can help establish a strong doctor-patient relationship at the start of a patient’s weight management journey and stay with the patient throughout it.
For example, weight management conversations can be uncomfortable for some patients, which can prevent patients from sharing their personal weight experiences. Telehealth can help reduce the stigma of weight management and create a more comfortable environment for patients. A J.D. Power survey found that the vast majority (94%) of patients and their families who received medical services through a telehealth provider in the past 12 months say they “definitely will” or “probably will” use telehealth to receive medical services in the future. Telehealth encounters were also preferred to in-person visits for several forms of routine care. By creating a more comfortable environment for patients, doctors can then get better insight into all of the physical, behavioral and lifestyle factors that are influencing a patient’s weight, including potential chronic conditions.
2. Set a care plan for long-term sustainable healthy lifestyles
While healthcare technology like telehealth can help set a strong foundation for the patient-doctor partnership, it can also be an effective way to implement a treatment and lifestyle plan that ensures long-term success. For some patients, this can mean connecting with a therapist online as studies show a direct link between obesity and mental health conditions.
For other patients, this might mean leveraging telehealth’s on-demand nature to engage in regular check-ins with in-app health coaches and nutritionists who can discuss how the treatment plan is going and whether they might need to make adjustments.
Ultimately, telehealth empowers patients to engage with an entire team of primary care doctors, therapists, and health coaches and nutritionists when and where is most convenient for them. Telehealth enables highly personalized weight management journeys that are more than just a prescription.
3. Streamline the patient experience to gather clinical insights quicker
By leveraging advancements in technology, healthcare providers can streamline the patient experience and gather clinical insights more efficiently. For example, technology can also help facilitate lab testing, a key component to any successful weight management program. Lab results can help nutritionists come up with dietary recommendations to complement medication. At PlushCare for example, each patient in our weight management program partners with one of our doctors through our evidence-based clinical protocol, which includes an initial assessment visit, lab testing, and a comprehensive whole-person review of the patient’s health, including other mental health and physical factors that influence weight.
Beyond telehealth, self-monitoring and tracking can also lead to even greater efficiencies in a weight management program through real-time data. Recent wearable tech like Fitbit, connected scales or apps that support meal tracking can lead patients to make healthier decisions, reaching their health goals faster. This was proven in a recent study that showed patients who regularly monitor their weight and physical activity are twice as likely to lose 5% body weight than those who do not. This type of ongoing monitoring can also help provide a patient’s doctor with actionable insights that can inform a change in their care plan before their next scheduled visit.
While there is much excitement about weight management medications, we must ensure technology is used to empower an evidenced-based approach to prescriptions and treatment. To do this, it is important that those seeking help from these revolutionary medicines find a trustworthy physician that can be your guide on your journey to a healthier weight.