OKLAHOMA CITY — Skipping the traditional doctor’s office visit, a growing number of medical marijuana patients are turning to providers who promise quicker, more convenient appointments from the comfort of home.
Brightly colored billboards are popping up along major roadways advertising the ease of virtual house calls to obtain the needed medical marijuana physician recommendation.
And some businesses offering telemedicine access say Oklahomans are showing a ton of interest. They’re seeing month-over-month percentage growth in the number of people signing up for appointments.
“Every month there are just more and more people,” said Kyle Powers, CEO of PrestoDoctor. The telemedicine platform has posted several bright yellow billboards around the state and plans to add more. “I think more and more people are finding out about the program.”
On good days, the company’s 15 to 20 licensed physicians are seeing more than 100 patients a day, six days a week, he said. The company charges $139 for an appointment and always gives the state’s two-year maximum physician recommendation, Powers said. The state’s license application fees are additional.
PrestoDoctor also offers virtual visits in California, Nevada, New York and Missouri.
“Everyone these days is too busy to take two hours out of your day to sit in a doctor’s office,” Powers said. “It’s not very convenient when you can just do the appointment at home.”
Rhys Wescott, an account executive with MarijuanaDoctors.com, which maintains a nationwide physician directory and provides free information for patients, said virtual visits are a pretty popular option. They typically vary in cost with more expensive doctors offering additional services. Medical insurance typically does not cover the visit, he said.
Wescott said although medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, only seven or eight — including Oklahoma — allow virtual physician approvals.
Scheduling a virtual house call can be as simple as going online, setting an appointment time and meeting with a doctor over video chat. Some services also require patients to send medical records ahead of time to ensure there’s a valid medical condition.
Oklahoma providers say they’re seeing a large number of patients from more rural areas who would otherwise have to drive an hour or two to see the closest doctor who specializes in medical cannabis. Many patients also have mobility or medical issues that make travel difficult.
“The intent was to really provide the most access to the most patients,” said Chip Paul, who co-wrote the 2018 ballot initiative that legalized medicinal use. “Telemedicine wasn’t really in the original plan. It’s a nice extension as long as the doctor-patient relationship is maintained.”
Maintaining that rapport is critical because it ensures physicians are diligent with how they are prescribing, who’s getting a prescription and ensuring positive patient outcomes, he said. That burden should be on the physician, not the patient, Paul said.
“I would prefer to see (the service) come up through clinics rather than individual physicians who are just trying to make a quick buck,” Paul said. “The doctor-patient relationship is very important in our law (and) to me.”
But even as its popularity increases, some professionals said consumers should be wary of unscrupulous providers and the unexpected obstacles that can arise during the state’s often-complicated licensing application process.
When Dr. Erick Kaufman, CEO and chief medical officer for Doctors of Cannabis, first launched his business about a year ago, no Oklahoma clinics were offering virtual visits. Kaufman said he spoke with an attorney who gave him the green light.
Still, he said he’s “been really reluctant to do them.”
“We’ve never really marketed that service because we’ve always wanted people to come see us,” Kaufman said. “We do it, but we only do it for very select people.”
Of his business’ 3,600 patients, only 100 have been permitted to use the virtual visit option.
“Sometimes I think we’re foolish for not marketing (virtual visits) because we could be a lot busier,” but that’s not what the business represented itself to be, Kaufman said. He has locations in Oklahoma City, Stillwater and Lawton.
One reason he’s so reluctant is because submitting the state’s application correctly is very cumbersome.
A doctor’s recommendation, meanwhile, is only valid for 30 days, so there’s little room for error, he said. If patients mess up, they could be left with an expired form and additional costs.
For a flat $250 fee, in addition to the clinic visit, his staff also files all the state’s licensing paperwork for patients.
“That is something that is very unusual in Oklahoma,” Kaufman said. “But that is exactly what most of our patients want.”
Kaufman said he’s learned through experience that remote telemedicine should be reserved for computer-savvy Oklahomans.
He charges a $150 fee for a virtual visit, but those patients only get the signed recommendation form. They are responsible for correctly completing the state’s application process.
Also Kaufman warned that some virtual providers don't adequately secure protected patient health information.
Powers, with PrestoDoctor, said he’s also heard reports of some physicians setting cheaper appointment costs, then trying to upcharge consumers. Patient receive a 60-day recommendation rather than the two-year option expected.
As patients shop around for the best option, Kaufman said they’ll discover prices vary widely from doctor to doctor.
“What they really need to ask is what they get for their money,” he said.
— Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.