‘The phone is ringing off the hook’: What Pa. doctors will learn about medical cannabis

The state approved two training programs so far.

Katheirne Hitt / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Update: Aug. 8, 9:45 a.m.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program appears to be right on schedule for an early 2018 launch.

The state gave out the first round of dispensary and grower/processor permits, and physicians are now able to register to become certified to recommend (not prescribe) cannabis to their patients.

The question is — will any actually want to?

According to Eric Hagarty, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, more than 100 physicians signed up in one week after registration went online. “We’re pretty excited about such a high level of interest — that’s more than registered in Massachusetts during the entire first year of registration in that state,” he said by email.

The CEO of one of the companies that will teach Pennsylvania’s doctors the ABCs of medical cannabis is also feeling the demand: “The phone is ringing off the hook.”

“Doctors, nurses and pharmacists are hungry for this education,” said Cheryl McDaniel, owner of Extra Step Assurance. Her company’s Cannabis Expertise is one of just two training courses the state has approved, per a July 26 email. The other is from The Answer Page, which has also designed online certification courses for New York state, Ohio and Florida.

Physicians who want to participate in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program are required to register online, at which point DOH checks to make sure they’re licensed to practice. Before these professionals can get final approval, they have to go through a four-hour course.

The Answer Page’s course is completely online with quizzes, while Cannabis Expertise offers live webinars and in-person seminars. Both will cover how marijuana can be used to treat various illnesses, how cannabis interacts with the body and the current state of regulations in Pennsylvania.

And they have just four hours to do that.

McDaniel and Dr. Stephen B. Corn of The Answer Page both said it’s challenging to do that. Corn’s company approached the task by offering 12-month access to a medical cannabis reference library along with online training that can be printed or saved.

“We want to make sure all the clinicians would have a library of all this information,” Corn said.

Extra Step Assurance’s Cannabis Expertise also offers an 18-hour seminar. After a recent event in Columbus, McDaniel said she was told by participants that the course “was as though I went back to med school” — also they’d like some additional breaks.

“We had an attitude that, my goodness, we want the doctors to know everything possible,” McDaniel said. She described entering her 18-hour event like a freshman and leaving with a graduate degree.

But because Pennsylvania requires just four hours, McDaniel said her company tried to distill what doctors absolutely need to know: some history, basic science, dosing information.

“I understand how to handle drugs and educate doctors,” said McDaniel, who worked in pharmaceutical support services for 30 years. But as she became more involved in medical cannabis, she “became alarmed” that “there was no good place where [doctors, nurses and pharmacists] could go to get info.”

McDaniel’s company was well-versed in how to put on continuing medical education and training events, but didn’t have the medical expertise to design something around medical cannabis. So she took the next several months to listen to speakers and enlist professionals like Dr. Dustin Sulak to take part in the trainings.

The curriculum is constantly being updated as new information on medical cannabis becomes available, McDaniel said. She finds it scary to think of the bad sources of information available.

“You wouldn’t say to a doctor, we want you to start diagnosing patients who have cancer. Could you read this pamphlet and good luck?” McDaniel said. “You wouldn’t do that.”

School’s in

The Answer Page’s online course can be accessed now and costs $299 with the promo code “PADOH.”

Cannabis Expertise will hold two live webinars Aug. 10 and Aug. 17 (both are $298) and its first live seminar Aug. 25, in Allentown ($398 to attend in person). Future seminars are planned for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, State College, Scranton, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport and Altoona.

You can’t get extra credit, but Pa. doctors who want to meet the requirement plus get a more in-depth education can attend Cannabis Expertise’s next 18-hour seminar, in Orlando.