America has a population with an extreme obesity prevalence of 15%. Unsurprisingly, nearly 30 million US adults meet the National Institutes of Health’s criteria for bariatric surgery, more commonly known as weight loss surgery. However, the cost of this procedure can vary widely, with ranges starting at $700 to over $30,000. This is why, in many cases, patients will elect to travel to another country to save up to 50% or more on bariatric surgery costs. However, it’s not just severely obese individuals looking to lose weight safely and effectively.
The off label usage of weight loss medications
More people who carry excess but not life-threatening weight are turning to weight loss medications like Ozempic and Wegovy, creating an overwhelming demand. And because a weekly injection is a less daunting path toward weight loss than a major surgery, these medications are being positioned to challenge bariatric surgery’s standing as the gold standard for obesity treatment.
While Wegovy is FDA-approved for weight management, Ozempic is cleared only for treating type 2 diabetes. Ozempic is a prime example of off label drugs for weight loss, or the prescription of drugs that differ from their FDA-approved conditions, as long as a healthcare provider deems it medically appropriate. This can happen because an off label weight loss medication is covered by insurance while alternatives are not, or because a patient has tried all the available on-label medicines without success. Off label prescriptions increase the variety of available options for weight loss drugs, driving the trend even further. As a result, the landscape of obesity treatment and, consequently, the medical tourism industry has been significantly impacted.
Impact on medical tourism
Participants lost an average of 15% body weight In clinical trials for Wegovy, and over 50% lost more. That’s why 45% of US adults have said they’re interested in trying a safe and effective weight loss drug.
This high efficacy rate presents a challenge for health providers that rely on medical tourism. After all, bariatric surgery comes with significant risks, not to mention a challenging recovery period, making non-surgical options more appealing for those with comorbidities that may complicate surgery. However, it’s important to remember that obesity disproportionately affects lower-income individuals, for whom visa fees and plane tickets may not be accessible. Previously, we talked about how logistics like accommodations and transportation can be tricky – more so if you’re a bariatric patient trying to save money by traveling solo, which is advised against. Weight loss medications can sidestep such hurdles, leading to a net-positive democratization of weight loss.
But while weight loss medications and bariatric surgery target similar conditions, they do not serve as substitutes for one another, as some patients may not qualify for surgery due to contraindications or other factors. In fact, research has shown that they can work synergistically with former bariatric patients using weight loss drugs to reduce weight regain or even continue weight loss. Thus, stakeholders in medical tourism have a unique opportunity to revisit their weight loss curriculum and diversify their medical services, including non-surgical programs for weight management that incorporate these medications.
These pharmaceutical advancements carry broader implications for how obesity is treated. Rather than perpetuating harmful implications about a person’s willpower or perceived laziness, these weight loss solutions pave the way for personalized and compassionate treatment that considers socioeconomic and psychological factors and the physical. Medical tourism can support this positive direction by making institutional changes that better acknowledge and accommodate patient needs and preferences.