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Where medical marijuana, health IT, and personalized medicine may intersect

By Andrew Rebhan

April 13, 2017

    An increasing number of doctors and medical researchers across the United States are asking state and the federal regulators to legalize medical marijuana. From an IT perspective, CIOs should remain cognizant of legalization trends, as IT and medical device vendors start to provide solutions that could impact patient care.

    State laws vary on the approval and use of medical marijuana. In states where it is legal, patients with qualifying medical conditions can obtain the drug at licensed dispensaries. Physicians' role is to evaluate their patients' medical history and needs, and to decide whether to write a recommendation certifying that patients have an ailment for which medical marijuana has been approved in their state (they do not directly prescribe or dispense the drug).

    The approval of several ballot measures in the 2016 elections is a tipping point for the country's marijuana laws, particularly with California's approval of recreational use, given its emerging cannabis market. Here is where the country stands on legalization as of early 2017:

    • 28 states and Washington D.C., have legalized medical marijuana
    • 8 states and Washington D.C., have also legalized recreational marijuana

    Cannabis technology and personalized medicine

    Apart from the fact that federal drug policies have discouraged health professionals from participating in this market, many physicians are simply uninformed about the potential benefits of medical marijuana because they have not been trained on its uses, including appropriate dosage, the effects of different strains, or the best method of ingestion. This situation has opened up an opportunity for IT vendors to help physicians tailor marijuana use to each patient's individual needs.

    The vendor PotBotics uses technology that, according to its website, "blends robotics, artificial intelligence, DNA analysis and cannabis research" to provide personalized marijuana recommendations to patients. With its BrainBot product, the company provides a wireless electroencephalography (EEG) helmet that allows doctors to record a patient's brain activity through electrodes and analyze his or her neural response to different cannabinoids. The data gathered through these evaluations go into a cloud-based, HIPAA-compliant software program, so physicians can analyze the results.

    By quantifying these effects, doctors can make a more educated recommendation regarding optimal cannabinoid levels for patients, rather than leaving it up to a trial-and-error process at the dispensary. This approach to tailor drug recommendations could also carry implications for physicians combating the opioid epidemic.

    Going beyond merely studying the effects of strains, developers at Syqe Medical have created a metered-dose cannabis inhaler that allows doctors to advise patients on a precise dose of marijuana, whether onsite or remotely. The Israeli company's Syqe Inhaler Exo product comes pre-loaded with 100-microgram cannabis cartridges. The inhaler gathers data as patients use it and syncs up with an accompanying software program (compatible with tablets or smartphones), providing a dashboard to help doctors better evaluate their patient's unique response to different doses, which they can adjust accordingly. The software platform is also linked to a clinical database, providing insight for third-party researchers and other health care entities.

    Other considerations for providers

    Telehealth has also found its way into the medical marijuana market. The vendor HelloMD offers telehealth conferencing with doctors for patients to receive their cannabis recommendation documents, as well as a library of resources to connect health care professionals, cannabis experts, and consumers (the company's website notes it has over 100,000 members). Through HelloMD's platform, patients create a profile that details their medical history, pay a fee, and then are connected in real time with licensed doctors via desktop or mobile device. Currently, only California and Nevada allow telehealth consultations for medical cannabis recommendations, while other states require an in-person appointment with a doctor.

    Organizations should adopt clear policies regarding the clinical appropriateness of recommending medical marijuana to comply with state laws. The drug's popularity is creating the need to bridge technology with health care providers, and IT companies are rushing to fill the gaps for on-demand medical marijuana consultations and education.

    Before entering into any business contracts, perform due diligence to ensure the vendor has worked closely with state and local regulators to provide HIPAA-compliant solutions that protect patient health information and shield your organization from liability.

    To learn more about medical marijuana's legal landscape, read our Daily Briefing article.

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