Study reveals that many oncologists recommend medical marijuana clinically despite not feeling sufficiently knowledgeable to do so

May 10, 2018

While a wide majority of oncologists do not feel informed enough about medical marijuana's utility to make clinical recommendations, most do in fact conduct discussions on medical marijuana in the clinic and nearly half recommend it to their patients, say researchers who surveyed a population-based sample of medical oncologists.

The study, published today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, is the first nationally-representative survey of medical oncologists to examine attitudes, knowledge and practices regarding the agent since medical marijuana became legal on the state level in the U.S. Medical marijuana refers to the non-pharmaceutical cannabis products that healthcare providers recommend for therapeutic purposes. A significant proportion of medical marijuana products are whole-plant marijuana, which contains hundreds of active ingredients with complicated synergistic and inhibitory interactions. By contrast, cannabinoid pharmaceuticals, which are available with a prescription through a pharmacy, contain no more than a couple of active ingredients. While considerable research has gone into the development of cannabinoid pharmaceuticals, much less has been completed on medical marijuana's utility in cancer and other diseases. The researchers speculate that the immature scientific evidence base poses challenges for oncologists.

"In this study, we identified a concerning discrepancy: although 80% of the oncologists we surveyed discussed medical marijuana with patients and nearly half recommended use of the agent clinically, less than 30% of the total sample actually consider themselves knowledgeable enough to make such recommendations," said Ilana Braun, MD, chief of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Division of Adult Psychosocial Oncology. "We can think of few other instances in which physicians would offer clinical advice about a topic on which they do not feel knowledgeable. We suspect that this is at least partly due to the uncomfortable spot in which oncologists find themselves. Medical marijuana is legal in over half the states, with cancer as a qualifying condition in the vast majority of laws, yet the scientific evidence base supporting use of medical marijuana in oncology remains thin."

The mailed survey queried medical oncologists' attitudes toward medical marijuana's efficacy and safety in comparison with standard treatments; their practices regarding medical marijuana, including holding discussions with patients and recommending medical marijuana clinically; and whether they considered themselves sufficiently informed regarding medical marijuana's utility in oncology. Responses indicated significant differences in attitudes and practices based on non-clinical factors, for instance regional location in the U.S.

"Ensuring that physicians have a sufficient knowledge on which to base their medical recommendations is essential to providing high quality care, according to Eric G. Campbell, PhD, formerly a professor of medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, now a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "Our study suggests that there is clearly room for improvement when it comes to medical marijuana."

To date, no randomized clinical trials have examined whole-plant medical marijuana's effects in cancer patients, so oncologists are limited to relying on lower quality evidence, research on pharmaceutical cannabinoids or research on medical marijuana's use in treating diseases other than cancer.

Of note, additional findings of the current study suggest that nearly two-thirds of oncologists believe medical marijuana to be an effective adjunct to standard pain treatment, and equally or more effective than the standard therapies for symptoms like nausea or lack of appetite, common side effects of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.
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Co-authors of the study are Ilana Braun, MD, Fremonta Meyer, MD, Lida Nabati, MD, Manan Nayak, MA, John Peteet, MD, James Tulsky, MD, Alexi Wright, MD, MPH, David Yuppa, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Joji Suzuki, MD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital; Eric Campbell, PhD and Yuchiao Chang, PhD of Massachusetts General Hospital; Dragana Bolcic-Jankovic, MA, MS, and Jessica LeBlanc, MA of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

The work was supported by the Hans and Mavis Lopater Foundation.

About Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

From achieving the first remissions in childhood cancer with chemotherapy in 1948, to developing the very latest new therapies, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is one of the world's leading centers of cancer research and treatment. It is the only center ranked in the top 4 of U.S. News and World Report's Best Hospitals for both adult and pediatric cancer care.

Dana-Farber sits at the center of a wide range of collaborative efforts to reduce the burden of cancer through scientific inquiry, clinical care, education, community engagement, and advocacy. Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center provides the latest in cancer care for adults; Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center for children. The Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center unites the cancer research efforts of five Harvard academic medical centers and two graduate schools, while Dana-Farber Community Cancer Care provides high quality cancer treatment in communities outside Boston's Longwood Medical Area.

Dana-Farber is dedicated to a unique 50/50 balance between cancer research and care, and much of the Institute's work is dedicated to translating the results of its discovery into new treatments for patients in Boston, and around the world.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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