At a recent meeting of physician leaders, we sat next to the head of the health system’s bariatric surgery program. Given the recent and rapid uptake of GLP-1 inhibitors like Ozempic and Wegovy, we asked how he thought these drugs, which can generate dramatic weight loss, would affect his practice.
He chuckled, “they’re really good drugs…they could put me out of business!
It’s too early to say if they’ll be effective over a lifetime, but there’s no doubt they’re going to have a huge impact on our work.” It got us thinking about the other reverberations this class of drugs could have on care needs, if a majority of obese Americans had access to them.
Some effects are obvious.
We could see significant declines in treatment needs for chronic diseases like obesity and heart failure, for which obesity is a strong risk factor. Given that obese patients are much more likely to need joint replacement surgery, we could see a big hit to that demand—although some patients who are poor candidates for surgery because of weight-related complications could become eligible.
Even longer-term, if American’s aren’t dying of chronic disease, we’ll still die of something, so expect diseases of advanced age, like Alzheimer’s and many cancers, to increase. Other pharmaceutical innovations, like the growth of immunotherapy and more targeted cancer treatments, also have the potential to radically alter how disease is managed.
We may be at the beginning of another wave of disruptive medical innovation on the order of the introduction of statins in the 1990s, which combined with minimally invasive catheterization, slashed the need for bypass surgery.
Given their sky-high prices, it’s too soon to tell how quickly the use of these new obesity drugs will grow, but innovations like these will serve to pull more care out of hospitals and into less invasive outpatient medical management.