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Florida Might Face Physician Shortfall As Medical Marijuana Expands

Nick Evans
Credit Nick Evans

While state officials debate the best regulatory framework for medical marijuana in Florida, a more practical challenge may be on the horizon.  The current list of doctors may not be enough to meet the demand of an expanding pool of patients.

Over the next few months lawmakers, health officials and—of course—potential investors will jockey for position in a changing medical marijuana landscape.  They’ll debate policy questions like local control, the definition of “debilitating conditions” and what qualifications are necessary for caregivers.  But another group is looking for changes where the rubber meets the road: the doctor’s office.

“As far as the three month relationship requirement, I really I have a real problem with this,” Mark Hashim says.  “Just yesterday I had a patient come in who’s terminal might have if she’s lucky two months to live,  and I have to look her in the face and say I have something that I think can help you but I can’t give it to you.”

The central Florida anesthesiologist is speaking to a panel of state senators.   Instead of waiting to establish a ninety day relationship with a patient as current regulations require, Hashim wants to work more like a specialist—making treatment recommendations in concert with a primary care doctor.

“So my proposal would be to allow the qualified physicians to order this for the qualified patients based on receiving medical information from their practicing—practitioners on their diagnosis,” Hashim says.

The newest figures from the Department of Health put the pool of patients at slightly more than 1,700, but attorney Colin Roopnarine says that number could explode as patients eligible under amendment two join the market. 

“I’ve seen some very large numbers.  Anywhere from it’s going to jump from you’re looking at maybe 600,000, you’re looking at well over a million patients,” Roopnarine says.  “I don’t think anyone has really quantified that but it’s going to be tremendous—there’s going to be a massive uptick.” 

“Can the number of doctors who are currently registered handle it?  Probably not.”

Right now there are only 387 qualified physicians.  That number will continue to grow, and Roopnarine believes health officials and lawmakers will take steps to deal with a potential bottleneck.  But he says complying with the amendment is a tall order.

“Merely saying go and promulgate regulations is like saying go and build a car,” he says.

As officials search for a policy prescription, the market is already moving.  In Tallahassee, Joe Dorn has opened up a small medical marijuana practice.  He started out as medical director for Surterra Therapeutics, one of the state’s seven dispensing organizations, but left to start working directly with patients. 

“We had patients calling daily, numerous patients looking for physicians,” Dorn says.  “And so I stepped back and said well maybe what I’m supposed to be doing is actually doing direct patient care again—which I’ve been doing for years—and so I decided to open my own practice.”

Dorn says medical marijuana reform in Florida has found its impetus in consumers rather than physicians, and he believes the state could have millions of eligible patients when everything is said and done.  If Dorn is right, the demand could encourage more doctors to follow his lead and jump into patient-facing practice. 

The question will be if they can keep pace.  

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.
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