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Lifestyle

January 16, 2013

Weight-loss regimen a preferred choice for countering diabetes

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The growing scientific consensus around the diabetes program has not been lost on one of the nation’s most ubiquitous and respected weight-loss programs, Weight Watchers. With 20,000 meetings a week across the United States, Weight Watchers International has the infrastructure that the Diabetes Prevention Program lacks. Like the diabetes program, its groups are run by coaches who give advice and encouragement and teach members to track their intake. The company has steadily added features — most recently a spate of food-tracking apps — as clinical trials showed their value.

Weight Watchers has been lobbying the government to recognize its programs as an effective tool for diabetes prevention. The stakes are huge: If insurers were required to cover the costs of patients’ Weight Watchers memberships, the customer base could expand by leaps and bounds.

In Britain, the National Health Service will pay for the company’s initial 12-week course, said David Kirchhoff, chief executive of Weight Watchers International in New York City. Given the program’s widespread presence in the U.S. and evidence of its effectiveness in clinical trials, it makes sense for insurers here to pay too, he said.

Entrepreneurs are also getting in on the act. Duffy’s San Francisco-based startup, Omada Health, launched an online version of the Disease Prevention Program called Prevent that may be the first of many digital spinoffs.

Designed to win the CDC’s seal of approval, Prevent resembles a Facebook version of the Diabetes Prevention Program while preserving the privacy of customers who prefer it. Incoming members are matched to a group, and everyone works toward a goal of losing 5 percent to 7 percent of their body weight in 12 weeks under the supervision of a coach. Members’ weights are transmitted to the coach by a digital scale issued upon enrollment and weekly thereafter.

Early testing has shown that as groups jell, members learn from — and lean on — one another, Duffy said. With fees of roughly $120 per month for four months, he plans to sell the program primarily to insurers and companies for use by their customers and employees.

Payment will be due only after users show results, he said.

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