Just six percent of the UK’s obesity management budget is being spent on the treatment of overweight patients while the rest is streamed into prevention, according to a new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The study, commissioned by Johnson and Johnson subsidiary Ethicon, explored the UK’s approach to obesity management and concluded that continued structural reform of the healthcare system has created confusion over accountability which, in turn, has created huge differences in access to treatment.

Sixty-two percent of the population is now overweight or obese, and yet almost half of obesity services across the country do not have access to higher levels of treatment, leaving patients having to wait longer for assessment, treatment and weight-loss advice, the report notes.

A recent survey shows that 40% of Clinical Commissioning Groups have no access to ‘Tier 3’ services, i.e. weight-loss medication prescribed by general practitioners, specialist dietician referrals and psychological intervention, and of the 60% that do access varies wildly. 

Also, bariatric surgery remains massively under-utilised. Just 18,000 people had bariatric surgery between 2010 and 2013 in the UK, of whom 4,000 also had diabetes. And while it was hoped that new NICE guidelines on the management of obesity would boost this figure, last year the number dropped to around 5,800 from 6,200 in 2014, according to Rachel Batterham, head of the UCLH Bariatric Centre for Weight Management and Metabolic Surgery and the UCL Centre for Obesity Research.

“We know that for some patients, especially those with type II diabetes, that bariatric surgery leads to unrivalled health benefits and cost-saving for the NHS. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the patients who could benefit from this surgery currently receive surgery. This represents a major missed opportunity in terms of improving health and economic savings”, she noted.

According to the EIU, the case study highlights the need for a more coherent approach to managing obesity in the country, one that rebalances prevention versus treatment strategies.