Worrisome diagnosis: lack of prescribing physicians causing Australian medical cannabis program to fail

"None of us want to be stoned. We just want to be a part of life"

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To be an authorized prescriber, a physician must have the training and expertise appropriate for the condition being treated and the proposed use of the product UrosPoteko / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Although the use of medical cannabis is legal in Canberra, touted as Australia’s culture capital, patients are reporting they are being forced to purchase their medication on the street as it’s nearly impossible to find physicians in the city willing to prescribe the drug.

ABC News Australia reports that Canberra grandmother and chronic pain sufferer Kerrie-Ann Trembath Forster has had serious difficulties gaining access to the country’s medical cannabis program because of a lack of people prescribing related medications. Trembath Forster has said she would rather access cannabis legally through the “access scheme”, but said she has had no choice but to purchase the drug from illicit sources.

Although Trembath Forster practices yoga and meditation to help deal with the pain, which she finds helpful, it’s not always enough to manage her illness.

“None of us want to be stoned. We just want to be a part of life,” she said.

Her search for pain relief has made her wary of local medical professionals. “I just realized how many doctors are ignorant and arrogant,” she said. “They are willing to put you on all sorts of drugs, and then they have a thing about cannabis.”

While Trembath Forster said her own family doctor was open to the idea of medical cannabis, she was told she would have to travel to 286 km to Sydney to see a physician who would allow her to get on the program. For a patient frequently unable to leave her bed, the lack of local prescribers has rendered access extremely challenging.

“That’s where I’m going to be doing it… there’s nowhere in Canberra,” Trembath Forster said. Many patients with limited mobility and/or financial resources report similar experiences.

Australian law requires medical cannabis to be prescribed by an authorized prescriber, that is “medical practitioners who are approved to prescribe unapproved therapeutic goods for a particular condition or class of patients in their immediate care without further [Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)] approval.”

To qualify as an authorized prescriber, a physician must “have the training and expertise appropriate for the condition being treated and the proposed use of the product; be able to best determine the needs of the patient” and “be able to monitor the outcome of therapy.”

Executive director of Chronic Pain Australia Benjamin Graham shared similar concerns to those of Trembath Forster. “[Patients] hit a brick wall when they see their GP,” he said.

“The GP either doesn’t know too much about it. They really aren’t comfortable about it, or they say there’s no research or evidence to support medical cannabis.”

Dr. Antonio Di Dio, president of the Australian Medical Association, said the primary barrier is “education and training for the GPs to prescribe” medical cannabis, but as more patients request it, he believes more physicians will be incentivized to participate in training.

 

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