WeightWatchers – for more than 60 years the standard bearer of diet and exercise programs for weight loss – is getting into the medication business.
The company is purchasing a year-old telehealth startup called Sequence, which will give patrons the option to request anti-obesity medication along with their monthly membership.
The details of precisely how the medical care will be integrated into the behavioral health system have yet to worked out, said Gary Foster, WeightWatchers’ chief scientific officer.
But after the deal closes this spring, WeightWatchers’ members will get the option to request a telehealth visit to discuss medication. If eligible, Sequence’s technology will speed the process of applying for insurance coverage for the drugs.
“As a brand leader, we have a responsibility to … look at recent advances in the science and treatment of obesity and think about if and how they fit in our WeightWatchers’ ecosystem,” Foster said. “We decided this was one that was worth incorporating.”
Obesity expert Dr. Caroline Apovian said she’s skeptical weight loss can be well managed without an in-person physical exam, but praised the move into medication.
“Kudos to them for doing this,” said Apovian, who co-directs the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
A new class of drugs has been shown to help people shed 15% to 20% of their excess weight, the kind of weight loss only possible before with bariatric surgery.
“Lifestyle (change) is very important but it’s not going to help people keep the weight off and that’s the key,” said Apovian, who serves on the scientific advisory board of Novo Nordisk, which makes one of the new drugs.
Details of the deal
WeightWatchers will acquire Sequence for a total of $132 million in a deal scheduled to be finalized this spring, according to a joint news release from the two companies.
Sequence, which launched in late 2021, had about $25 million in annual revenue from approximately 24,000 members as of last month. It offers an automated preapproval process to help patients get coverage for weight-loss medications.
“For those who have insurance coverage, you’ll be able to ascertain insurance coverage in short order,” which can be challenging for many medical offices to handle and has been a major roadblock for accessing medications, Foster said.
Today, only about 20% to 30% of private insurance plans cover weight-loss medications and government programs do not, Apovian said.
The drug Wegovy (generically called semaglutide), which can help people lose as much as 15% of their body weight, costs about $1,300 a month. Mounjaro (tirzepatide), a $1,000-a-month diabetes medication being tested for weight loss, has shown it can help people lose about 20%.
Foster said he also was impressed with how Sequence’s customers spoke about the quality of the service and how easy it was for them to access care. The company has a limited history and did essentially no marketing, he said, but still managed to accumulate more than 20,000 members.
“We’re always looking for how we can better serve people with weight management that is scalable, science-based and effective,” Foster said.
Weight-loss medications aren’t for everyone, he said, but for the people for whom they’re appropriate “we want to make sure that process gets done well.”
Why offer weight loss medications now?
In one study of 150 WeightWatchers members, participants lost about 6% of their body weight after six months, with one-third of the most active members losing at least 10%.
The new generation of medications, which manipulate natural hormones that regulate fullness, can lead to much greater weight loss.
Foster described this class of drugs, called GLP-1 agonists, as “a significant inflection point in the treatment of obesity.”
While most people who lose weight through diet and exercise regain the weight, medications are expected to be taken indefinitely to keep pounds from creeping back.
“This is not a short-term fix,” said Dr. Christopher Still, an obesity medicine expert and director of the Geisinger Obesity Institute. “Once you stop these medications, you take away that barrier of appetite and your appetite comes back and the weight comes back.”
WeightWatchers’ purchase is “a great idea,” according to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian weight-loss specialist, who takes some funding from Novo Nordisk.
“Right now, we have a world that treats obesity like a disease of willpower and a healthcare system that’s not trained in the medical management of obesity,” he said.
In the past, WeightWatchers has contributed to the false notion that lifestyle change can lead to enduring weight loss for many people, Freedhoff said, while in reality thousands of genes and hormones undermine weight loss efforts. “Thankfully, we are finally in an era of safe, useful, tolerable medications that can lead to long-term clinically meaningful change.”
The drugs are intended to be used in combination with a healthy diet and regular exercise, so WeightWatchers’ traditional plan will help people who are eligible for and choose to use medication, Foster said. As people lose substantial amounts of weight they are expected to lose some muscle, so exercise will remain crucial.
“We’re not going away and we’re going to continue to help people whether medications are part of their journey or not,” he said.
What does WeightWatchers do?
For a monthly membership fee ranging from about $23 to $45, WeightWatchers provides a point system related to food and exercise, a digital app, branded foods and items and in-person and virtual workshops.
The company has been struggling financially in recent years. Its stock, which sold for over $100 a share as recently as June 2018 closed on Monday at under $4 a share.
Advocates have criticized WeightWatchers for giving people false hope about their ability to lose and keep off weight through diet and exercise, which has been shown ineffective long-term for the vast majority of people.
“Weight Watchers has made their fortune fomenting fatphobia, co-opting body positivity, and selling a product that almost never works,” advocate Ragen Chastain said in an e-mail. “The fact that a company that is so morally bankrupt that it has been putting profits over people since its inception might gain the ability to prescribe medications with dangerous side effects is horrifying.”
Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said he doesn’t see medication as the solution to obesity, which now includes more than 40% of Americans.
But the newer medications can be very effective at helping people lose weight.
“They’re in a class by themselves compared to prior options and there’s a lot of excitement about them,” Ludwig said.
Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected].
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.