Our big fat NHS weight loss plan

, Content, Engagement, Home, Strategy

The NHS weight loss plan just keeps piling on the popularity. With the first few months of 2016 under our belts we can reveal the latest download figures for the 12-week programme.

There’s an annual surge in interest for all things diet-related each New Year, and take-up of our diet and exercise plan continues to grow impressively.

The programme has now been downloaded nearly 3.8 million times since it went live three years ago – making it one of NHS Choices’ most successful products.

January 2016 saw 273,000 downloads compared to 47,000 in January 2014 – that’s a six-fold increase. We’re now looking forward to another spike in early summer as people resolve to lose weight before their holidays.

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Weight loss plan downloads (the drop between week 31 and 40 in 2015 was due to a tagging issue)

The idea for the plan followed an attempt to get sign off for an official “NHS Diet”; this didn’t go down well for a number of reasons, mainly around the perception that “dieting” in many forms isn’t especially healthy.

But we didn’t give up on the idea because we knew from lots of feedback that our users were clamouring for an evidence-based, structured weight loss programme from a trusted source.

We tried a different approach. Rather than create something new, we would carefully repurpose our existing weight loss advice into a neatly packaged and action-focused programme.

The guide would be delivered through 12 weekly information packs in PDF format, each full of dietary, healthy eating and physical activity advice, including weekly challenges for users to complete. This approach carried enough weight to tip the scales in favour of approval by the Department of Health (DH).

We had underpinned our new proposal with credible evidence, including user research and published science. We had also managed to secure the expertise of the British Dietetic Association to clinically sign off the plan, which further validated our project in the eyes of policymakers.

From concept to go-live, the plan took about six months to produce and involved teams across content – including tools, pictures, videos and design. All in all, it was a great joint effort.

Each information pack contains a “stick-on-your-fridge” food and activity chart to record calories, exercise and weight loss so users can see how they’re doing at a glance.

The guide can be printed off for the user by a GP, friend or other third party – some exercise classes hand them out – meaning you don’t need the internet or even a computer to actually use it.

Despite its digital source, the NHS weight loss plan is a low-tech solution with accessibility at its heart.

Email support and online forum

We added an email sign-up feature to help users stick with the 12-week plan by sending them a weekly reminder encouraging them to get on with the next stage.

In 2015, 35,000 people signed up for the weekly email reminders – putting it among our most popular email support programmes.

We’ve created something of which all at NHS Choices can be really proud. With no promotional budget, we spread the word through social media, press releases and forums.

As word spread, downloads rocketed.

We set up a weight loss forum on HealthUnlocked to support people following the plan. It currently has 30,000 members – by far our biggest forum.

A grass-roots online community has built up around the plan, with weekly weigh-ins, a weight loss club (for people to lose weight together) and an “I did it!” badge for completing the plan.

We’ve got a survey on the forum asking people how much they’ve lost on the plan and about 65% say they’ve lost weight. It’s by no means scientific but it’s encouraging feedback.

Comments from people who’ve used the plan include:

  • “The plan got me kick-started to a slow but sustainable weight loss.”
  • “The plan is not about dieting, it is about changing the way you live.”
  • “Sticking to the plan has helped me develop new healthy habits.”
  • “Over these last 12 weeks, I’ve turned my life around.”

National media coverage

Positive national media coverage followed with The Daily Telegraph telling people: “Stop pouring money down drain with fad diets, warns NHS”.

The Daily Mail followed suit with the “NHS warns of dangers of New Year ‘fad diets’ as it reveals its own 12-week plan for cutting the calories.”

One of the most powerful testimonials was from Andy Leeks, “the man who did 10 diets in 50 days and found one that really worked”, according to the Daily Mail.

There is no better advocate than a member of the public and Andy’s story certainly caught the attention of DH policymakers.

“It isn’t so much a diet as a healthy lifestyle plan that helps you lose weight, but at the same time helps you to develop new, healthier habits,” he told NHS Choices.

So what next for the NHS Weight loss plan – effectively the NHS’s first official online weight management programme?

It has had millions of downloads, has a strong online community and plenty of positive feedback and anecdotal evidence that it works.

But there are plenty of known unknowns starting with the million dollar question: is it helping people to lose weight and keep it off?

There is a crying need for more data to help us understand what works with the plan and what doesn’t so we can continue to improve and serve our users’ needs. We’ll be looking into how we can get the high-tech data we need from our low-tech success.

Online weight loss programmes are a relatively new field of research but what is self-evident is that they offer a low-cost solution for weight management.

For a healthcare service under constant pressure to spend wisely, the NHS weight loss plan feels like a no-brainer – it was inexpensive to create, is easy to maintain and has engaged millions who want a healthier lifestyle.

Cream buns all round.

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