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Rx for diabetes not pill, but will

A 12-week weight loss program for at-risk patients is a key test of a new national focus on preventive health.

January 09, 2013|Melissa Healy
  • The Diabetes Prevention Program is a 12-week program aimed at preventing Type 2 diabetes by getting obese adults to shed as little as 10 pounds and exercise for a little more than 20 minutes a day.
The Diabetes Prevention Program is a 12-week program aimed at preventing… (Getty Images )

After all those well-intentioned New Year's resolutions have yielded to the force of habit, many of the nation's 79 million obese adults will have a day of reckoning with their primary care physicians.

Lose weight and get active, the doctor will order, or risk developing diabetes. Then the MD will scribble a prescription.

For most patients, the prescribed treatment will not be a pill. It will be a 12-week program aimed at preventing Type 2 diabetes by getting obese adults to shed as little as 10 pounds and exercise for a little more than 20 minutes a day.

That regimen -- the Diabetes Prevention Program -- may soon become the blockbuster prescription medicine you've never heard of. In 2013, it is poised to become the envy of pharmaceutical companies, a new rival to programs such as Weight Watchers, and a target of opportunity for healthcare entrepreneurs.

Led by a trained coach, it is a testament to the power of a mentor and of setting modest goals in spurring healthful behavior. And it may be a crucial first test of the Affordable Care Act's focus on preventive health.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 11, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Weight loss program: An article in the Jan. 9 Section A about the Diabetes Prevention Program said that the program was developed at the University of Indiana. The school is Indiana University.

In nearly 30 clinical trials, scientists have established that the program is far more effective at helping people lose weight and prevent or delay the onset of diabetes than "usual care" -- essentially, a doctor telling a patient to slim down and get active, and then sending him on his way. But the program hasn't been packaged in a form that healthcare providers can simply and cheaply offer to patients, said Dr. Jun Ma of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, who studies diabetes prevention.

The Diabetes Prevention Program is not rocket science. In 12 weekly sessions, a coach teaches obese subjects at high risk of developing diabetes to set goals for losing 5% to 7% of their body weight, limit the fat and calories they consume, track their food intake, get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, and devise strategies to avoid gaining back lost pounds.

In trials, subjects who attended the tightly scripted sessions and followed the regimen were far more likely than those who were on their own to reach their weight-loss goals in three months -- and to keep that weight off for more than a year. By doing so, they drove down their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 58%, according to a landmark report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002.

The program, in short, is powerful medicine.

"If you could take it as a pill, it would definitely be commercialized," said Sean Duffy, a software designer and former Google employee who launched an online version of the program about a month ago.

In June, a panel of physicians and public health experts that advises the Department of Health and Human Services gave the program a mighty push into everyday medical practice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that doctors refer their obese patients to "intensive, multicomponent behavioral interventions" designed to promote weight loss and physical activity. It cited only one that met its strict standards: the Diabetes Prevention Program.

Under the Affordable Care Act, that carries significant weight. Starting in June, most health insurers will be required to make proven weight-loss and behavior-modification programs available without a copayment to obese customers with a doctor's referral.

No one knows whether expanded coverage of such programs can save money and head off a public health disaster. But without it, experts believe a tidal wave of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease -- with a 20-year price tag estimated at $550 billion in the U.S. alone -- is a virtual certainty.

For all its promise, the program has remained little more than a good idea -- and a pretty expensive one at that -- for years. The researchers who developed it at the University of Indiana pegged the cost of the trial's intensive 12-week phase and nine months of maintenance at about $1,300 per patient. To make it cheaper and more accessible, they trained a few YMCA chapters to deliver the program.

Today, about 75 chapters in 28 states and the District of Columbia offer it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been charged with broadening access to "lifestyle change" programs, disbursed $6.75 million in 2012 to encourage health insurers, public health advocates and employer groups to offer versions of the program.

But with more than 78 million people potentially in line to get it, demand far outstrips supply.

Researchers like Ma have been working on ways to use technology to make the program more widely available. In a study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine, she and her colleagues found that putting the 12-week curriculum on an inexpensive DVD and assigning a coach to answer questions and offer support helped 37% of obese participants lose 7% of their body weight -- a rate more than twice as high as for those who got no help at all.

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