Public warning – Non-evidence Based Weight Loss Programs

13 Mar 2017

Public warning under section 94A of the Health Care Complaints Act 1993 – Non-evidence Based Weight Loss Programs

The NSW Health Care Complaints Commission has completed its investigation into complaints about services provided by the Medical Weightloss Institute (MWI). While MWI ceased trading on 9 February 2017, the Commission is aware that there are health practitioners formerly associated with the organisation who intend to continue providing the same weight loss protocol previously promoted by MWI and who have approached former clients of MWI to offer the same services under another name.

The Commission has therefore determined to make the following public statement and warning under section 94A of the Health Care Complaints Act 1993.

In 2015 and 2016 MWI advertised widely in print media that it had made a “landmark discovery” of a link between hormones and weight gain, supporting the development of a treatment plan that could: “lower the production of the hormone insulin and cortisol, making it much easier to lose weight”. MWI specifically claimed that thanks to its treatments, which “reset” the hormones to burn stored fat for fuel and help to speed up metabolism, Australians could now lose weight without strenuous exercise or counting calories.

MWI then offered tailor-made weight loss programs devised by a team of “expert weight loss specialists”, based on a client’s medical history and comprehensive blood test analysis.

MWI made a number of claims about what clients would receive if they signed up with MWI and these claims included:
• Each client would receive a medical assessment and a comprehensive blood test analysis, to determine underlying health, to ensure there was no physical reason preventing weight loss and to assist in the design of a client’s tailor-made weight loss supplement and medication regime.
• These tailor-made treatments were promoted as being able to alter an individual’s hormone production to aid weight loss.
• The medication prescribed by MWI doctors was claimed to correct “hormone imbalances”, improve insulin sensitivity, suppress appetite or act as a stimulant.
• The individualised medications were to be complemented by the advice and support of nutritionists and weight loss coaches. The team was advertised to include doctors, nurses, dedicated program managers, motivational psychologists and nutritionists who would offer ongoing “medical” monitoring and support.

MWI advertised that they knew as much about medical weight loss as medical practitioners and cautioned potential clients that while there was “nothing wrong” with talking to their GPs about the treatment protocol, “they don’t know what we know” and speaking to them first might therefore be “fraught with danger”.

The Commission considers that the claim by MWI - to have developed a “medical treatment for weight loss” based on resetting “unbalanced” hormones with supplements and prescription medication - lacks an adequate clinical basis to substantiate its efficacy and safety. Furthermore, MWI targeted a particularly vulnerable group of health care consumers with its claimed discovery of a successful formula for weight loss that is not available to other medical practitioners. MWI has actively discouraged this vulnerable cohort from seeking advice and approval of the proposed weight loss program from their GP’s, thereby putting their health and safety at risk and potentially delaying their access to more appropriate and evidence-based treatment.

The Commission’s investigation found that the services provided by MWI did not accord with their claims about what clients would receive:
• MWI doctors and nurses only assessed potential clients by telephone,
• They provided inadequate advice and information about the risks and side effects of prescribed medication and did not provide ongoing medical monitoring and support.
• Clients complained of only receiving a weekly check in call and sporadic email contact (at best) from MWI staff, who were not sufficiently skilled to deal with individual circumstances.
• Clients had great difficulty obtaining advice from an MWI medical practitioner when needed.
• Once enrolled in the program, they were advised to seek the assistance of their GP’s for any clinical needs.
• Despite the considerable cost of the MWI programs and the assurance that medical assessments, medications and ongoing monitoring were included in the price, clients complained that the initial pathology testing to determine suitability was also an additional expense.

The investigation found that the medication prescribed by MWI doctors was sent to clients in the mail by a compounding pharmacy without the provision of counselling and other relevant medicine information required to facilitate the safe and effective use of the compounded product. One 75 year old client, had a prescribed medication “protocol” that included Metformin (a medication used to improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes, which is contraindicated for people with severe kidney disease) as well as caffeine for “diabetes prevention, weight loss and metabolic syndrome”. This client did not have diabetes but had advised MWI that he did have a renal impairment due to a recent history of renal cancer and only one kidney. That client reported side effects from the inappropriate medication that included insomnia, blurred vision and vomiting. These symptoms abated on ceasing the medication.

Public Warning

MWI’s claim that it has developed a fast and easy weight loss protocol involving the correction of hormonal imbalance with tailor made prescription medication regimes is not evidence-based. The organisation is considered to have made extravagant claims not borne out by the weight of clinical research in this area. The use of initial blood testing to tailor-make the weight loss protocol is clinically spurious and designed to give an appearance of medical authenticity. In practice; the organisation’s doctors wrote prescriptions for combinations of complementary and prescription medications without seeing or examining clients in person and a compounding pharmacy mailed the medication without the required accompanying information to ensure safety and effectiveness. A particularly vulnerable cohort of health consumers was convinced to part with large sums of money for pharmaceutical preparations that may have serious contraindications and side effects and for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy for weight loss. 

The Commission urges those individuals considering programs and products for weight loss to be vigilant in their research prior to proceeding.  They should discuss a weight control plan with their GP.  Most can offer weight loss and healthy lifestyle advice and refer to a dietitian.  Many specialise in weight loss.

The Commission recommends to consumers that they:
• be very careful about advertised claims of effortless, rapid and sustainable weight loss and offers for medicines, supplements or other products that promise to achieve this. 
• find out what evidence is used to support these claims and do not rely only on testimonials from people who have used the program or products.
• always inform their doctor of any non-prescription or other prescribed products they may be considering for weight loss before signing up or taking them, so that their doctor can help assess the safety and efficacy of doing so.  


Further Information

For further information, contact the Executive Officer of the Health Care Complaints Commission, on 9219 7444 or send an email to media@hccc.nsw.gov.au.

The information in this media release is correct at the time of publication. Orders may change; for example, conditions may no longer apply. For current information regarding the status of a registered health practitioner, including any conditions that currently apply, please check the National Register at www.ahpra.gov.au.