More than one third of patients referred by GPs to Weight Watchers in a bid to stave off diabetes saw their blood sugar levels return to normal, a study published in the British Medical Journal has found.

Out of 166 patients with elevated HbA1c levels referred to the diabetes prevention programme - an intensive lifestyle intervention offering 48 weekly Weight Watchers community group meetings - 38 percent of patients returned to normoglycemia and 3 percent developed type II diabetes at 12 months.

The researchers concluded that a UK primary care referral route partnered with this commercial weight management provider can be effective at preventing diabetes.

“The lifestyle changes and weight loss achieved in the intervention translated into considerable reductions in diabetes risk, with an immediate and significant public health impact,” they said.

“Type 2 diabetes is a serious and potentially debilitating condition for patients, and it costs the NHS a huge amount of money every year, so the College welcomes any scheme that can prevent, or delay, its onset,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

The findings that GP referrals to weight management programmes appear to have prevented a third of patients from developing type 2 diabetes “are both positive and encouraging, and are certainly something for commissioners to consider”.

However, also stressed that “organised weight management programmes won't work for everyone so GPs and our teams will continue to play a pivotal role in managing the vast amount of diabetes care in the community…so we must ensure that general practice has the investment it needs, and the appropriate number of GPs and nursing colleagues, to do this properly."

Around 2.6 million people in England have with type II diabetes and there are around 200,000 new diagnoses every year, despite the condition being largely preventable through lifestyle changes. The condition currently costs the NHS £1.5 million an hour, and 80 percent of this is for treating also mostly preventable complications such as amputation, blindness, kidney failure and stroke.