A recent study suggests that combining two modern approaches to weight loss results in better outcomes.

Share on Pinterest
Image credit: PeopleImages/Getty Images

In an effort to make healthcare both more effective and less costly, institutions are increasingly turning to population health management programs. These data-driven programs proactively help groups of individuals manage their health.

A new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, explored the value of these programs alongside online weight loss programs as a means of helping individuals reach and maintain a moderate weight.

The researchers found that combining population health management with online weight loss programs resulted in individuals losing significantly more weight and being able to sustain that weight loss compared with the online program only.

“The idea was to leverage population health management, which is a strategy that’s been implemented at the Brigham and in other institutions, to see if it could be integrated with an online weight loss program and be sustainable over time,” says the lead author, epidemiologist Heather Baer.

The findings of the study feature in JAMA.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity among the adult population of the United States was 42.4% in 2017–2018 — the latest period for which official data are available.

Individuals seeking advice about weight loss may look for help from their primary care physician. However, that physician may not always be able to provide consistent guidance and support throughout an extended period while the person works toward achieving their weight loss goals.

In such cases, people may turn instead to online weight loss programs. However, some previous research has suggested that such programs are not always effective.

Baer and her colleagues felt that population health management programs, on the other hand, may be a natural choice for weight management. They note, “Population health managers are already doing outreach to people who would benefit from weight loss, such as patients with hypertension or type 2 diabetes.”

Population health management programs are designed to help individuals maintain control of chronic health issues.

Brigham’s population health management program is a phone- and email-based system that reaches out to individual patients to provide information, guidance, and support on an ongoing basis.

The study tracked 840 people who received treatment in Brigham’s Primary Care Center of Excellence network between 2016 and 2019. All of the participants had overweight or obesity, as well as hypertension or type 2 diabetes.

The team divided the individuals into three groups according to the type of weight loss care that they received:

  • the “usual care” group received weight loss information through the mail
  • the “online program only” group took part in an online weight loss program
  • the “combined intervention” group joined the online weight loss program and also received outreach and support from Brigham’s population health management program

After 12 months, the average weight loss for people in the three groups was as follows:

  • the usual care group: 2.6 pounds (lb)
  • the online program only group: 4.2 lb
  • the combined intervention group: 6.8 lb

The weight loss of the combined intervention group, which equated to about 3% of their overall weight, was greater than that of the online only group by a small but still statistically significant amount.

About one-third of those in the combined intervention group achieved a weight loss of 5% or more of their starting weight. This weight loss is sufficient to deliver significant health benefits, which can occur with a 3% or greater reduction in weight for individuals with overweight or obesity.

In the usual care and online only groups, just 14.9% and 20.8%, respectively, lost 5% of their starting weight.

Although the programs ended at 12 months, the researchers found that people in the combined intervention group had maintained their weight loss at an 18-month follow-up.

“Our findings suggest that the combined intervention facilitates potentially sustainable weight loss in the long term.”

– Heather Baer

Baer points out, however, that as the majority of participants were white, well-educated, and English-speaking, the broader applicability of the study findings is unknown.

Providers and patients have become more accustomed to the virtual delivery of healthcare since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We knew that online weight loss programs can be more convenient, accessible, and cheaper for patients, but now both physicians and patients have become more comfortable with the idea of care being delivered virtually,” Baer says.

She suggests that this may bode well for both online weight loss programs and population health management, concluding, “Virtual care is going to stay with us postpandemic, and this study provides more evidence that even prepandemic, virtual care for some conditions is working.”