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Study Shows Most Physicians Lack Knowledge Of Medical Cannabis

A study of more than 400 health care professionals has revealed that most physicians lack knowledge of medicinal cannabis, with 65% saying that they have been asked about medical marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain but were unable to answer their patients’ questions.

The quantitative research study, which was commissioned by cannabis healthcare brand Cannaceutica, surveyed 445 physicians who treat chronic pain, including general practitioners and specialists in fields such as orthopedics, rheumatology, and sports medicine, about their knowledge of medical cannabis. Physicians who participated in the study had from two to 35 years of practice and were at least somewhat knowledgeable about medical cannabis and at least somewhat likely to recommend it to their patients with chronic pain, assuming medical marijuana was legally available.  

Vast Majority Of Doctors Asked About Medical Cannabis

An overwhelming majority (84%) of the health care providers surveyed said that their patients had requested or asked about cannabis for chronic pain, with 72% reporting that they had been asked in the previous 30 days. Dr. Daniele Piomelli, the director of the Institute for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine and a member of the UCI Institutional Review Board that approved the research, said in a press release that the study “emphasizes both the public interest around cannabis as an analgesic and the lack of reliable data and/or medical education about its correct use.”

“In 2017, a National Academy of Science expert panel concluded that there was ‘substantial’ but not ‘conclusive’ evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids are effective in treating chronic pain in adults,” Piomelli continued. “Five years later, we are still lacking the data needed to put this issue to rest, one way or another. It’s time we fill this gap.”

The study, which has not yet been published or peer reviewed, also found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of physicians said that patients themselves were their dominant source of information about cannabis, followed by the internet (44%) and medical journals (40%). The survey reveals a glaring lack of knowledge about the therapeutic uses of cannabis among health care professionals, most of whom receive little to no education on medical marijuana or the endocannabinoid system in medical school.

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Research is revealing increasing evidence and support for the therapeutic use of cannabis for chronic pain. However, cannabis regulatory changes are outpacing the type of evidence many physicians need to feel confident about recommending cannabis to their patients. The survey of health care professionals found that 81% of physicians believe that cannabis will play a role in the management of chronic pain in the future, but only one in four said that they were very likely to recommend medical marijuana for chronic pain today.

Challenges For Doctors And Patients

Mikhail Kogan, M.D., medical director of the GW Center for Integrative Medicine and associate professor, George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has treated and recommended cannabis to more than 3,000 patients, about half for chronic pain. But he says that he is a significant exception, as the lack of formal education makes it difficult for doctors to recommend medical cannabis to their patients.

“We struggle with this question for good reason. We don’t send patients to a website to learn about their medications, so we shouldn’t send a patient to a website to learn about cannabis,” Kogan writes in an email. “Patients can read books and research papers or talk to budtenders in a dispensary for guidance, but none of these are good options. It’s not even a Band-Aid solution, because self-medicating can lead to unwanted side effects.”

Kogan adds that there is also too much trial and error in self-medicating with cannabis, which can create complications or a discontinuation of the therapy because of a lack of information or dosing guidelines. And when he does recommend medical marijuana, Kogan notes that inconsistencies in available products also present problems for patients and providers.

“A patient could walk into a dispensary asking for a specific strain or product that works for them and either the dispensary doesn’t have it or there are inconsistencies between batches, and they can’t find the exact same product,” says Kogan.

Until regulation of marijuana catches up with its current use, Kogan says that both health care providers and patients will continue to face challenges with the therapeutic uses of cannabis.

“Standardization in education is critical, but so is standardization when it comes to cannabis products for pain to ensure that the patient gets the same exact medicine every time,” he explains.

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