Global medical cannabis expert calls on NZ doctors to upskill

“It’s absolutely essential that New Zealand doctors better inform themselves about medicinal cannabis. Many patients will soon be seeking professional advice on their options, and frankly time is running short,” says Professor Mike Barnes, Director of Education for The Academy of Medical Cannabis.

Professor Mike Barnes, neurologist and Europe's leading medical cannabis expert

The comments from the British neurologist and Europe’s pre-eminent medicinal cannabis expert come as he prepares to lead three training events designed specifically for healthcare professionals in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch at the end of this month.

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP) has endorsed the Masterclass in Medical Cannabis events. This marks New Zealand’s first, national RNZCGP-endorsed professional training of its kind on medicinal cannabis. The events are sponsored at arms-length by the country’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics. 

Ministry of Health, Wellington

This week the Ministry of Health released its discussion document on proposed regulations for New Zealand’s Medicinal Cannabis Scheme. Widespread concern has since been raised over a specialist recommendation being required before a GP can prescribe – a move many medical and industry experts think would substantially impede patient access to medicinal cannabis. Public consultation closes on 7 August.

Professor Barnes says New Zealand can learn a lot from Britain’s recent experiences where many doctors found themselves completely unprepared for the enormous number of patients seeking advice on medicinal cannabis.

“In New Zealand, political and public support for medicinal cannabis is extremely high. However, if your doctors are not fully informed, they’ll be reluctant to give advice. That’s exactly what we’ve seen in the UK where around 80% of doctors support cannabis for medicinal use, but they’ve been slow to offer their professional opinion to patients because they’re just not confident enough,” he says.

A recent survey of healthcare professionals, commissioned by Helius, revealed many Kiwi doctors remain poorly informed about medicinal cannabis and how to prescribe it. A majority of physicians feel more training is needed to understand how medicinal cannabis products work, in order to administer the best possible care to their patients.

“Your Parliament has been so strong on this, with the Ministry of Health now working hard to get the right regulatory framework in place, all while hundreds of thousands of suffering New Zealanders patiently wait. If your doctors are not ready on day-one to respond to all the medicinal cannabis enquiries, it will cause a large amount of patient frustration, as we’ve seen in the UK.

“That’s why we set up The Academy of Medical Cannabis and that’s why the masterclasses I’m leading in New Zealand at the end of this month are critical. Doctors need a balanced set of internationally-recognised and accredited resources to give them the confidence to consult on medicinal cannabis,” he says.

London-based training organisation, The Academy of Medical Cannabis, with sponsorship from Helius Therapeutics, is offering the masterclasses free of charge to healthcare professionals in Auckland on Wednesday 24 July; Wellington on Thursday 25 July; and Christchurch on Friday 26 July. Those interested in attending can book through Helius’ website.

Professor Barnes applauds the initiative and leadership from Helius Therapeutics in sponsoring the three events.

Executive Director of Helius Therapeutics, Paul Manning, says as the country’s largest medicinal cannabis firm, it’s incumbent on Helius to invest in education opportunities for the healthcare professionals, in what is a rapidly emerging field of clinical practice.

“Helius is focused on delivering many of New Zealand’s first cannabis-based medicinal products as we strongly believe every Kiwi has a natural right to a pain-free existence. However, access will not improve unless doctors are well-informed about medicinal cannabis and how to prescribe the products. Thousands of patients will be relying on their GPs for advice about, and access to, medicinal cannabis.”

Mr Manning says Professor Barnes’ inaugural visit is already generating considerable interest in medical, industry and media circles.

“We’re delighted to be sponsoring these masterclasses, which are led by a globally-recognised figure whose insights and expertise are in such high demand. To have secured Professor Barnes is a major coup for New Zealand, with Europe’s experience in medicinal cannabis being relatable to what New Zealand is now going through,” he says.

The masterclasses will provide physicians a sound foundation of knowledge in how medicinal cannabis works, safety and risk management considerations, through to how to consult with patients and prescribe products, where there is a sufficient evidence base for application.

Professor Mike Barnes became more widely known after the UK Government commissioned him in 2016 to assess evidence for the medicinal use of cannabis. Now known as ‘The Barnes Report’, his work changed the direction of legislation in the UK and acted as a catalyst to the eventual rescheduling of medicinal cannabis in November 2018. He is also the author of more than a dozen books and 200 published papers.

Professor Barnes also famously consulted to Alfie Dingley’s case in England – a six-year-old boy who suffers from a rare form epilepsy that was causing up to 150 seizures a month. His seizures have been since dramatically reduced after being given cannabis products.

Alfie Dingley (UK), who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy.

Mr Manning says New Zealand doctors now have a unique opportunity to get well ahead of the game – one they should seriously consider for the sake of many patients who have found other treatments ineffective, or have resorted to the black market, and have been waiting a long time to seek advice from their doctor on medicinal cannabis.

Parliament passed The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill late last year with the regulations, licensing rules and quality standards to be set this year. Then, in the first quarter of 2020, medicinal cannabis products are expected to become legally and more widely available, through doctor prescription.

A survey Helius released recently showed 34% of adults in New Zealand are likely to seek advice on medicinal cannabis in the next year, with a majority of GPs already seeing a surge in enquiries from patients and their families seeking a range of therapeutic possibilities.

Professor Barnes says all Kiwis can play a positive role in encouraging their doctors and healthcare professionals to prepare and educate themselves.

“I’m coming out because Kiwi doctors need to get prepared now. They owe it to their patients to be able to confidently consult on medicinal cannabis and potentially prescribe it. After all the New Zealand public has said it wants a workable scheme that delivers from day one,” says Professor Mike Barnes.

UPDATE: The Auckland Masterclass in Medical Cannabis has sold out but limited places are still available for healthcare professionals to attend the Wellington and Christchurch events.

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