Special Report: The pandemic heralded changes to telehealth, and this has made medical cannabis accessible for millions more Australians.

The COVID-19 pandemic and telehealth has done what a Senate committee and four years of painstaking industry-building could not: make medical cannabis available to all Australians.

Compass Cannabis president Dave Martyn says the number of patients referred to his Australian clinics since changes to the telehealth regime in March has been impressive.

“COVID-19 has opened up access significantly and we can correlate the changes to patient access with the record approvals occurring almost on a monthly basis. One month after telehealth restrictions eased, Australia saw two straight record months of patient access,” he told Stockhead.

It’s one reason why he believes Australia is the next big global growth market for medical cannabis.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved 4630 applications to use unapproved medicinal cannabis products in June, and has approved over 50,000 since the regime began.

Compass Cannabis has two clinics in Australia and has just raised $1.3m via equity crowdfunding on Birchal to expand. But it also has a telehealth system perfected in Canada, where the company hails from, which it has been able to rapidly roll out Down Under.


Changes enabled wider access

Australia did a major about-face on telehealth in March with GP and other health professional consults being funded for all Australians, rather than just a tightly restricted cohort.

Medicinal cannabis, as a Special Access Scheme B drug, did not fall into the new Medicare funding criteria but has benefited from the removal of a requirement that prospective patients must physically visit a medical professional.

“It’s still a strict system — you can’t be a pill mill — and we’re not that finding people who just want to get high can get through the system. We maintain that standard and vast majority of people in that space do as well,” Martyn said.

Much like with any other condition, assessments can be made using existing documentation such as a person’s medical history, current drug regime, X-rays and so on, he said, much like any other specialist telehealth consultation.


Not just a city thing anymore

Access to Australians outside major cities has long been a problem, as few GPs were willing to prescribe or deal with the extensive paperwork requirements, and requirements to physically see a doctor when distance is a factor reduced the ability of people particularly in rural areas to access medicinal cannabis.

During the Senate enquiry into patient access one of the more powerful submissions was from the Country Womens’ Association of Australia, which said rural people were effectively being excluded from using medicinal marijuana by the stringent rules around the SAS B regime and a lack of willing GP to prescribe.

The pandemic, combined with growing acceptance of medical cannabis by medical professionals and patients, has changed this.

“Patients using telehealth to access medicinal cannabis have been a combination of people self-restricting or fearful because of COVID-19, and people who geographically aren’t close to a main centre where all medicinal cannabis clinics are still located,” Martyn said.

“We are seeing enquiries from people who live in all sorts of places who want advice.”

That advice ranges from how to use an under-the-tongue dropper and detailed queries about cannabis oil.


Analysts love telehealth

Morgans health analyst Scott Power who says telemedicine was a rising theme before the pandemic thanks to better technology and large data storage capabilities.

Now he thinks it’s almost unstoppable as advancements such as remote monitoring allow clinical trials to open up to rural patients, and as diagnostic apps mean a doctor in Melbourne can listen to a cough in Alice Springs.

He says he’s hearing anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana is becoming much more accepted by the medical community, such as by his GP who, at 65, is going through the registration process to become an authorised prescriber for his 20 cancer patients.

He says clinics are at an early stage in Australia but have the potential to grow significantly over time.

This article was developed in collaboration with Compass Cannabis, a Stockhead advertiser at the time of publishing.

This article does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.