SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A new type of medical practice has sprouted up in the Syracuse area that's promoting something most doctors cannot give patients – pot.
A Fayetteville doctor has launched MedMarijuana Consultants, a practice he's advertising on an Interstate 690 billboard.
Dr. Gerard Rodziewicz is staking out a new niche at a time when most other doctors are steering clear of the state's 9-month-old medical marijuana program, making it difficult for patients to get prescriptions. His billboard is a sign that medical marijuana is poised to go mainstream in New York.
Tom Dennison, a Syracuse University professor and health care expert, expects more doctors to get on the medical marijuana bandwagon.
"There's money to be made so people are going to follow the money," Dennison said. "The history of the U.S. health care system has taught us if there's a market, there are providers."
Few doctors willing to prescribe medical pot
The state has not yet publicly released the names of doctors who have taken a required four-hour course and registered with the state so they can prescribe the drug.
"It can be a big hassle for everyone involved," Rodziewicz said. "We want to take that hassle away."
As of June 15, there were 32 Central New York doctors participating in the state's medical marijuana program -- 26 in Onondaga County, five in Oswego, one in Madison and none in Cortland and Cayuga, according to the state Health Department. There were 17 Upstate counties without any participating doctors. To improve access, the state plans to let nurse practitioners prescribe medical marijuana.
Rodziewicz and Dr. Scott Treatman , a partner in Complementary Health Services of Cazenovia, are trying to fill the void by devoting their practices to medical marijuana prescribing. Rodziewicz is a neurosurgeon retiring from surgery. Treatman is an osteopathic doctor who is the part-time director of employee health at Crouse Hospital.
Doc offers smartphone consultations
Eligible patients can get prescriptions from Rodzewicz without ever leaving home. All they need is a smartphone or computer to have a video consultation with the doctor.
Rodziewicz has prescribed medical marijuana to about 20 patients so far and Treatman, 90.
Rodziewicz and Treatman require patients to provide records from their treating physicians that document their medical conditions. If patients meet eligibility requirements and are appropriate candidates, the doctors certify them for medical marijuana use. A patient then must go online to register with the state, which mails the patient an ID card necessary to buy medical marijuana from a dispensary. The state charges patients $50 to register.
After the initial consultation, it takes about five days for patients to get an ID card, Rodziewicz said.
A lot easier to get marijuana illegally
Rodziewicz said he hasn't encountered any patients feigning chronic illnesses to get medical marijuana for recreational use. "If anybody wants marijuana they can get it (illegally) a whole lot easier than going to their doctor's office," he said.
Medical marijuana is expensive and many of the formulations sold at dispensaries do not make people high.
"The people we are seeing have real medical issues and want to get it taken care of as part of their medical care," Rodziewicz said. "We look upon this as just another medicine to try."
Treatman prefers face-to-face visits with patients in his office. He also occasionally makes house calls to patients who can't get around.
Rodziewicz offers patients the options of video consults or face-to-face meetings in his office at the Northeast Medical Center in Fayetteville.
Oldest medical pot patient is 92
Most of Treatman's patients have cancer or neuropathy, a type of chronic pain that can be caused by diabetes, multiple sclerosis, physical trauma and other conditions. His oldest patient is 92.
To qualify for medical marijuana under state law, patients must have one of the following 10 conditions: cancer, HIV/AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury with spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy and Huntington's disease. Patients also must have one or more of these complications: wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, or severe or persistent muscle spasms.
Medical marijuana is only available in New York in oral capsules or liquid forms that can be vaporized and inhaled or taken orally. Smokable marijuana is not permitted.
Treatman prescribes a form and strength of medical marijuana best suited to each patient's problem. "The bottom line is it's an experiment," he said. "No one knows how they are going to respond."
He and Rodziewicz say many patients have had good results. Some of Treatman's patients with chronic pain are using medical marijuana to wean themselves off prescription painkillers, also known as opioids, which can be addictive.
"You see a lot of people who have tried everything in the medicine cabinet and none of it is working." Rodziewicz said.
Traditional pain meds don't work for some patients
Dr. Patrick Lynch, 57, a Syracuse radiologist, is one of them. Lynch was Rodziewicz's first video consult patient.
The prescription drugs Lynch took for pain and muscle spasms caused by a high school football injury made him dizzy and produced other unpleasant side effects.
His doctor recommended he try medical marijuana and referred him to Rodziewicz.
Lynch used his iPad to connect with Rodziewicz for a video consultation. "You get an email from Rodziewicz, you click on a button and there he was," Lynch said. "It was very efficient and user friendly."
Rodziewicz prescribed medical marijuana capsules and an oral spray, which have significantly decreased the pain and spasms, Lynch said.
"I have not experienced any side effects, no euphoria or high feeling," he said. "I don't wake up feeling drugged like I did using traditional medications."
Health insurance does not cover medical marijuana. Lynch paid $230 for two weeks' worth.
Medical pot so expensive some patients can't fill prescription
Treatman said he warns patients upfront about medical marijuana costs so they don't experience sticker shock. Patients can spend anywhere from $150 to $500 a month depending on the type of medical marijuana they get and how often they use it.
It took Susan Rusinko, an Auburn woman with multiple sclerosis, seven months before a Rochester doctor approved her for medical marijuana. But she didn't fill the prescription after finding out it would cost more than $400 a month.
"I still have to use marijuana illegally because I cannot afford to go to the dispensary," said Rusinko, who is on disability. She said $200 worth of illegal marijuana lasts her a month.
Rusinko said patients with MS and other conditions eligible for medical marijuana should be able to get prescriptions from their regular doctor instead of having to go to another physician.
Treatman said many doctors don't want to participate in the medical marijuana program because they are under financial pressure to see more patients and don't have time to take the required four-hour course.
Rodziewicz said many doctors don't understand how the medical marijuana program works.
"If you do it infrequently it's a real hassle for you and your patients," he said. "If you can outsource that part of your patient care, everybody wins."