Australian doctors need more training on medicinal cannabis, new study finds

A worker at a cannabis greenhouse. (Photo by Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
  • A study of Australian doctors has found that many feel ill-equipped to provide advice on medicinal cannabis, despite the majority receiving patient enquiries.
  • Despite that, of those surveyed who had an opinion of cannabis safety, the majority said it’s safer than other treatments such as chemotherapy.
  • The study’s authors said the results indicate that more broad-based training for doctors is urgently required.

A survey of Australian doctors found that more than two thirds of GPs have fielded patient enquiries about cannabis. However, most of them feel ill-equipped to provide medical advice on the subject.

The study was carried out between August and November 2017 by the University of Sydney, and published in the British Medical Journal Open.

Despite their relative lack of knowledge in field, a majority of Australian GPs still advocate for the use of medicinal cannabis to address problems such as cancer pain.

The top three ailments for which respondents supported the use of medicinal cannabis were:

  • Chronic cancer pain (80.2%)
  • Palliative care (78.8%)
  • Intractable epilepsy (70.3%)

Of the doctors surveyed who had an opinion on the relative safety of medicinal cannabis, a strong majority said it was safer than other common treatments for pain and depression.

More than half said cannabis was safer than antidepressant medications, while almost four in five respondents (78.1%) said it was safer than chemotherapy. And over three quarters (75.6%) said it was safer than opiod analgesics such as morphine (75.6%).

The findings coincide with a separate four-year study by the University of New South Wales, which indicated that a degree of caution is required in assessing the effectiveness of cannabis compared to other treatments.

Based on a survey of 1,500 respondents who were prescribed opiods for non-cancer pain, the UNSW study found that those using medicinal cannabis in place of opiod medications had greater pain and anxiety and were coping less well.

Although the relative effectiveness of medicinal cannabis is still up for debate, Anastasia Suraev, the co-author of the University of Sydney study, said the findings highlight the need to provide broad-based training for GPs.

That differs from the current structure, where cannabis medication can only be prescribed by specialists.

“A majority of GPs believe medicinal cannabis should be available by prescription, with the preferred model involving trained GPs being able to prescribe independently of specialists,” Suraev said.

Co-author Iain McGregor advocated for similar changes, given that more than two-thirds of GPs surveyed had received at least one inquiry about medicinal cannabis over the prior three months.

“Our survey demonstrates many GPs have fielded recent enquiries about medicinal cannabis from their patients – yet most feel poorly informed and inadequately trained around medicinal cannabis and its current regulation and uses,” Professor McGregor said.

“GP education and training are urgently needed. Most Australians know how hard it is to access specialist medical care, let alone a specialist with an interest in cannabis-based medicines,” McGregor said.

“This situation continues to frustrate patients, many of whom simply continue to access illicit cannabis to self-medicate.”

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