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The UK Starts Prescribing Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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It is official. British doctors as of November 1, 2018, can now write prescriptions for medical cannabis. But what does that really mean? And is this truly a victory or merely an opening in the fierce resistance to and outright battle against cannabinoids as medicine?

A Real Victory Or Another Stall?

Many in the advocacy community in Europe are profoundly split. On one hand, yes, the British decision, like other sovereign medical cannabis reforms in Europe over the last two years, is a victory. The British government, like many before it, has thrown in the towel on denying basic access to medical cannabis. But what does this mean, especially in a country which may well be facing shortages of basic food products and other kinds of medications in under half a year if things continue to blow up on Brexit and there is no “people’s vote” to save the day?

Cultivated product would, normally, be slated to come from Portugal and Spain where Tilray and Canopy in particular have set up cultivation centers. If things continue to head to a negotiated Brexit, it is inevitable that imported cannabis would fall into the same category of everything else set to come into England by boat or lorry. It is highly unlikely that the NHS would authorize full payment for cannabis flown in from Canada. Especially with British Sugar’s existing cannabis plantations in Norfolk as well as the budding cultivation deals now finally flowering all over the country if not in Ireland.There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money.

Brexit Is The Bigger Worry, So What About Cannabis?

It may also seem to some that access to cannabis is the least of the country’s worries. Actually this is a discussion deeply embedded in the politics and drama in London and Brussels right now. It is also at the heart of Brexit itself. Namely the propaganda associated with European divorce that ran along the lines of “saving the NHS.”

In fact, the legalization of medical use in the UK, just as it is in countries across Europe (Germany being the best and most current ongoing example) will do much to shine a light on how creaky and outdated the medical provision system really is here. Especially when it comes to approving new drugs for large numbers of people quickly. This was, ultimately the goal of public healthcare. See penicillin, not to mention most inoculation drugs or vaccines for childhood diseases (like Polio).

One of the great ironies of cannabis legalization in Europe of course is that it is also often shining a light on how far this concept, not to mention funds for proper delivery, has been allowed to lapse. There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money. That is if it can finally make its way into widespread medical distribution.

UKflagAnd cannabis is a drug like no other. Why? Despite all the pharmacization of the plant that is going on right now as producers are being forced to produce pills and oils for the medical market, cannabinoid treatments will not be pushed so easily into “orphan” status – since whole plant products can treat a range of diseases. This is important in terms of supply and negotiated prices down the road. But in the short term, cannabis is falling into a couple of strange categories created by organized public healthcare, insurance mandates (both public and private), the demands being placed on producers in this space to act more like pharmaceutical companies, limited public spending budgets, and a changing demographic where chronic conditions treated by cannabis are a whole new ballgame. Namely patients are living longer, and not necessarily old.

So while it is all very well and good for British doctors to begin to write prescriptions for cannabis, merely having one does little good for most patients. In fact, this usually means the battle is only half won.

Why?

National Healthcare Is Still Functional In Europe

As foreign as it is to most Americans, most European countries operate more or less the same way when it comes to healthcare. First of all, all of the national systems in operation in Europe today, including the UK, were set up in the aftermath of WWII to recover from devastation most Americans, especially today, never experienced personally.

These healthcare systems were set up to first and foremost be inclusive. In other words, the default is that you are covered. 90% of populations across Europe in fact, including the UK, are covered by their national healthcare systems. “Private” health insurance actually only covers about 10% of the population and in some countries, like Germany, is mandatory once annual income rises above a certain level.

However this system is also based on a very old fashioned notion of not only medical care, but treatment of chronic conditions. Namely, that most people (the mostly well) face low prices for most drugs. Further, the people first in line to get “experimental” or “last use” drugs (as cannabis is currently categorized in Europe no matter its rescheduling in the UK), are patients in hospitals. With the exception of terminal patients, of course, that is no longer the case.

Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany.That is why, for example, so many disabled people began to sue the German government last year. They could not afford treatment until their insurer approved it. Monthly supplies in legal pharmacies are running around $3,000 per month for flower. Or about 8 times the total cash budget such people have to live on (in total) on a monthly basis.

In fact, because of this huge cost, approvals for drugs like cannabis do not actually happen at the front line of the insurance approving process, but are rather kicked back to regional (often state) approvals boards. As a result, approval for the right to take the drug with some or all of the cost covered by insurance, is actually limited to a much smaller pool of people right now – namely the terminally ill in hospital care. In Germany, the only people who are automatically approved for medical cannabis once a doctor writes the prescription, are the terminally ill. For everyone else it is a crapshoot. Between 35-40% of all applications in Germany are being turned down a year and a half into medical legalization. Some patients are being told they will have to wait until next year or even 2020.

And once that prescription is actually approved? Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany. Namely pharmacies do not readily stock the drug in any form.

In the meantime, patients are turning back to the black market. While the online pharmacy discussion is different in the UK than Germany, which might in fact make a huge difference for the right approvals system, most patients in the UK still face a long fight for easy and affordable access covered by public healthcare.


Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is now in negotiations for a pilot of her digital prescription and insurance pre-approvals and automization platform called MedPayRx in several European countries including the UK, Germany, and a few others.

Rob Adelson
Soapbox

Collaborative Health Model to Advance Cannabis Research

By Rob Adelson
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Rob Adelson

The projected growth of the legal cannabis market is astounding. According to a report from BDS Analytics, the industry is expected to grow from $9.2B to $47.3B in 2027 in North America, with medical cannabis contributing 33% of that overall growth. While this number is impressive for an industry still in its infancy, I have reason to believe it can be much higher.

In the pharmaceutical industry, treatment of pain and insomnia represent an annual revenue exceeding $140B; concurrently, studies have shown cannabis to be an effective treatment for both conditions. If medical cannabis can capture 10% of that revenue over the next ten years, it essentially doubles the current estimates mentioned above.

So, what stands in our way? Education.

To gain acceptance from the medical community, physicians need to better understand the plant and its therapeutic benefits. To do so, they need more substantial data to prove cannabis’ efficacy before prescribing it to their patients. However, federal illegalities have prevented government-mandated clinical studies, but I believe there’s another way.

By adopting a collaborative health care model, patients and caregivers can work together to track the effectiveness of their cannabis treatments and share their learnings with the larger medical community.  With the right tools in place, we can fast-track the research process and provide physicians and politicians with the information they need to make this medicine more approachable and accessible to those who could benefit from it.

By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.The Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT) was a five-year study consisting of approximately 2500 patients with back and spine conditions. Participants entered qualitative data into an online portal, including post-surgical results and patient outcomes, to provide a comprehensive insight into treatment methods and their efficacy. Today, others suffering with those same conditions can enter their personal information into an online calculator and receive a prospective treatment plan. Together, patients and their doctors can view results and build a customized plan using more informed decisions about the available treatment options.

Another example comes from OpenNotes– an exploratory study that provides patients with full access to their medical files and the opportunity to input comments about their doctor visits and prognosis and make corrections related to the care they received. Results showed that this process helped patients retain a better understanding of their condition which improved their decision making and resulted in increased adherence to treatment plan protocols because they had greater trust with their doctors.Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.

I believe the cannabis industry can take a leadership role in empowering patients to become active participants in their own treatment, while also sharing knowledge with the larger patient and physician communities. In fact, this core belief was the reason I founded Resolve Digital Health. Data-empowered patients not only make better decisions but also enjoy a greater feeling of control over their treatment. The power of collaborative healthcare grows exponentially when the data is shared to educate a broader group. By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.

Businesses within the cannabis industry can also leverage this data to create new products and services. For example, insights as to what products work best for certain conditions can help LP’s improve their product offerings and guide recommendations from dispensaries. Through product innovation, companies can make cannabis more accessible to a larger group of patients, who may be currently taking pharmaceuticals. Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.

Ultimately, knowledge is power. When patients are empowered to make educated decisions about their health care and doctors are more tuned into the patient-tested cannabis treatment options, it’s a win-win for everyone.

Cannabis Report

German Health Insurer Issues First Look at Impact of Medical Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Cannabis Report

If anyone (read Auslanders) had any illusions that the German take on medical cannabis was going to be casual or unscientific if not painstakingly documented, think again.

Techniker Krankenkasse (or TK as it is referred to by the locals) is one of Germany’s largest public health insurance companies. In other words, it is a private company that is required to provide so called “statutory” health insurance which covers 90% of Germans.

As such, they are also on the front lines now of the medical cannabis debate. Approximately one year after the new law requiring public health insurance companies like TK to reimburse cannabis claims went into effect, the company has just issued what would surely be a best-seller if it were being sold.All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad.

The Cannabis Report, as it is titled, produced with the help of professors at the University of Bremen, is also the first of its kind. In its pages, along with the corporate summary produced for the recent press conference in Berlin, are several fascinating snapshots of what is going on.

By the numbers.

The Cannabis Report

For those who cannot understand German, this summary by Business Insider is quite educational. Here are the major takeaways: There are now almost 16,000 German patients who are receiving some kind of medical cannabis by prescription. From a doctor. These patients are also paying about $12 for their monthly supplies – even if they have to wait for reimbursement. This is in contrast to the 1,100 patients who managed to obtain cannabis by prescription and pay for it themselves before the law changed last spring.

Do the math and that is a 1,450% uptick. Add in the additional 15,000 left out of this report who are getting cannabis prescribed but their claims turned down, and that is an even more amazing story.

Cannabis ReportHere is the next obvious fact: All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad. A significant amount is still coming from Holland. The rest? Canada.

For that reason, the cost of medical cannabis is a major concern, along with the medical efficacy of cannabis and the authors’ frustrations about dosing.

The most interesting takeaway? Chronic pain and spasticity arehigh on the list of prescriptions (MS is currently the only condition which is “on label” for cannabis). So is Epilepsy and AIDS. Most interestingly are the high numbers for ADD. This is also highly significant in a country where amphetamine prescriptions for the same are almost unheard of.

TK, like the other health insurers who have started to provide numbers, also approved approximately two thirds of the requests they received. And it has cost them $2.7 million. That bill will begin to reduce as Germany cultivates medical cannabis domestically. However, the tender bid, which now apparently includes 11 contenders, is still undecided, with growing apparently pushed off now until (at the earliest) sometime next summer.

The bottom line, however, in the report from Socium, a university-based think tank that focuses on social inequality, is that cannabis is a drug that should also be treated like any other medication. Even though study authors conclude that so far, they do not find cannabis to be as “effective” as other drugs, they clearly state that the drug does help patients.

An Equally Interesting Industry Snapshot

Flip to page 20, however, and the authors also confirm something else. The top companies providing medical cannabis to German publicly insured patients who are getting reimbursed are Bedrocan, Aurora andCanopy. Aurora’s brands clock in at the highest percentage of THC, although their German importer Pedianos, clearly offers a range of products that start at less than 1% and increase to 22%. MedCann GmbH (renamed Spektrum last year) is essentially providing the rest, and ranges of THC at least, that go from 5.4%-16.5%. They also provide the products with the highest percentages of CBD.

Page 20 of the Cannabis Report produced by TK
Page 20 of the Cannabis Report produced by TK

Unlike the other companies, Canopy’s “brands” are also showing up in ostensibly both medical and government reports (Houndstooth, Penelope, Princeton and Argyle). This is interesting primarily because the German government (and regulatory requirements) tends to genericize medications as much as possible.

Dosing, Impact, Results

The next page of the report is also fascinating. Namely a snapshot of what kind of cannabis is being prescribed and at what doses. Patients who are obtaining cannabis flower are getting up to 3 grams a day. Dronabinol, in stark contrast (which is still the only form of the drug many German patients are able to get), is listed at 30mg.

Unlike any corporate report so far, the study also discusses consumption methods (including, charmingly, tea). It is impossible to forget, reading this, how German and structured this data collection has clearly been. There are several fairly stern referrals to the fact that cannabis should not just be prescribed for “vague” (read psychological) conditions but rather aspecific symptomology (muscle spasms and severe pain).

There is also great interest in how flower differs from pills. And how long the effects last (according to the authors, effects kick in about 2-15 minutes after dosing and last for 4 hours). This is, of course, an accurate picture of what happens to just about every patient, in every country. What is striking, particularly to anyone with an American perspective, is how (refreshingly) clinical much of this basic data collection and discussion is.

And no matter how much the authors call for more research, they clearly have observed that cannabis can have positive, and in many cases, dramatic impacts on patients. According to the handy graphs which are understandable to English speakers, study authors find significant evidence that the drug significantly helps patients with severe pain and or muscle spasms – see MS and Epilepsy, AIDS patients with wasting syndrome and paraplegics (wheelchair bound individuals). Authors list the “strong possibility” that the drug can help with Tourette’s and ADHD. Fascinatingly, however, so far, German researchers are not impressed with the efficacy of the drug for Glaucoma. “Psychological” and psychiatric conditions are also low on the list.

Regardless, this is an important line in the sand. As is the clear evidence that cannabis has efficacy as medication.

The great German cannabis science experiment, in other words, is well underway. And further, already starting to confirm that while many questions remain, and more research is required, this is a drug that is not only here to stay, but now within reach of the vast majority of the population.