Early-Adopter Docs Ramp up New York's Medical-Marijuana Program

Crain’s Health Pulse
February 1, 2016

New York doctors are signing up to recommend medical marijuana more quickly than some critics had anticipated. As of Jan. 28, 306 physicians had registered with the state, and they had helped 465 patients get certified for the program. But accessing treatment remains a challenge for many who are eligible. Doctors who are early adopters are still working out how best to incorporate the new treatment option into their practices and how to reach potential patients.

Northwell Health is one of several systems in New York that has voiced support for the medical-marijuana program. Some Northwell doctors already have registered but are being asked to hold off on certifying patients until the hospital adopts certification guidelines.

"Given our size—we have nearly 3,000 full-time physicians—it's important for us to develop single standards and best practices that we can apply across our health system," a Northwell spokesman said in a statement.

That process will take about two months, he said, and most of the doctors who participate will likely be hematologists/oncologists, neurologists and infectious-disease and pain-management specialists.
"We are in the process of increasing the level of comfort because doctors have not talked about this in medical school," said Dr. Souhel Najjar, executive director of the neurology service line at Northwell and chair of neurology at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine.

Getting comfortable with recommending marijuana can be a long process, said Dr. Bernie Lee, associate chief medical officer at MJHS, the state's largest hospice and palliative care organization. He started seeing eligible patients last week.

"If physicians knew they had a subject-matter expert they could call on, that would give them a much better comfort zone," he said.

But in the case of cannabis, the experts typically are not doctors. Lee said he has gone to several conferences and consulted with nonclinicians in the field to supplement the four-hour online CME course the state requires.

Even if doctors are ready to recommend cannabis, interested patients may still struggle to find them. The Health Department has yet to release a physician registry.

Steven Mrowzinski, an acupuncturist on Long Island, is making a business of referring potential cannabis patients to registered doctors. Since the first dispensaries opened on Jan. 7, he's had requests from about 50 people seeking doctors who are a match for their medical needs and their location. As of last week, he had a list of 35 registered doctors around the state. He found them by scanning the Internet and through word of mouth.

"I have my ear to the ground," said Mrowzinski, who was an avid lobbyist for the Compassionate Care Act.

For now, he said, the service provided by his company, Therapeutic Consultants, is free for doctors and patients. Starting in March, he will begin charging doctors a fee to be on his list.

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