“Our philosophy is that cannabis is a tool, one of many healing tools. It should be part and parcel of an overall treatment plan,” says Donna Shields, co-founder of the Holistic Cannabis Academy in Boulder, Colorado.
The HCA, an educational program on medical cannabis for practitioners, was developed by Shields and co-founder Laura Lagano—both registered dietician nutritionists. Continued education is expected, even required of healthcare professionals; but, when it came to medical cannabis, programs simply didn’t exist to fill that important space. When Shields realized that her colleagues knew little to nothing about cannabis, she saw it as an opportunity.
Cannabis, Synergy, and Whole Body Health
With a belief that cannabis (and all medical treatments) should be viewed through a larger lens, importance is given to the “whole body system” and how, physically, everything is related. With personal support for the “synergistic” effect in treatment care, Shields considers integrating cannabis with various modalities of healthcare, such as a good nutrition plan, acupuncture, aromatherapy, meditation, and yoga, as an important facet to healing.
“Cannabis is a tool, one of many healing tools. It should be part and parcel of an overall treatment plan.”
“You don’t have to be in one camp or the other. Cannabis can be used in conjunction with your medication; we never tell anyone to stop taking their medication,” she says. “This can be an integral part of your treatment plan. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
This is exactly what Shields and Lagano have built the Holistic Cannabis Academy for: broadening perspectives and giving health practitioners a greater understanding of cannabis’ place in the medical world.
The program is run entirely online with rolling admissions, so people can join at any time. Shields markets the program in a variety of ways, including accessing medical conferences and hosting online summits. Their first summit spanned four days, 28 speakers, and 17,000 people opting in to the program.
The classes aren’t limited to certain geographical locations either, which means their student body reaches across the globe, including Canada, New Zealand, Spain, and Australia. In fact, interest abroad may be less apprehensive than here in the states.
“I see those in Canada as already being more holistically minded, so this isn’t that big a leap [for them],” says Shields. “As Canada looks to fully legalize, they’re not hamstrung by the same issues that we have [in the United States], so it’s been more comfortable for them to think about it.”
The HCA was approved for continuing education credit hours in Canada, which makes it easier for students to justify spending time and money on the program.
This is a big deal, because it allows health practitioners to meet their continuing education requirements while taking the HCA’s course, which makes it much easier for students to justify spending time and money taking the program. They also run similar programs in the U.S. with nutrition organizations, but it takes a lot of time and patience to gain approval since each American institution has their own governing organization and requirements.
These organizations are important to the HCA since the majority of their clientele are not physicians. “Most of the people who are gravitating towards our kind of holistic cannabis education training are allied health professionals,” says Shields. This includes acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, nutritionists, drug rehab counselors, mental health therapists, herbalists, and health coaches.
Shields believes that because these health practitioners generally spend a greater amount of time with their patients, as opposed to physicians who are usually in-and-out of each appointment, they are able to see the benefits of cannabis in a deeper way.
Helping Physicians Understand Cannabis as Medicine
As for why physicians are less likely to take interest in the program, Shields believes it’s simply a lack of information coming through the traditional channels.
“I think with [physicians] there’s a lot of, ‘Well, if I didn’t learn it in medical school, it can’t be true… this doesn’t have a lot of validity,’” Shields says. “Part of the problem is there’s a wealth of research available, [but] most of it has not been done in the U.S., so it requires a physician to look at it outside of the traditional channels. If the continuing education that goes on with physicians is very often delivered by pharmaceutical companies, that means they haven’t heard of the endocannabinoid system. They haven’t heard of cannabinoid medicine.”
“If the continuing education that goes on with physicians is often delivered by pharmaceutical companies, that means they haven't heard of the endocannabinoid system. They haven't heard of cannabinoid medicine.”
That said, Shields does believe there is a big way in which physicians are learning about medical cannabis: from their patients. With more people broaching the subject with their doctors and sharing first-hand accounts of progress they’ve made using cannabis, physicians are, in a way, being forced to acknowledge its medicinal properties.
“You know this whole stigma—and we refer to it as “cannaphobia”—it exists, and it’s alive and well. I think one of the problems particularly for licensed practitioners is, if they’re talking to their clients about [cannabis], they’re worried, is this within my scope of practice?”
Shields and the HCA say the answer to that is a resounding “yes.”
“This is education, and you have an obligation to your patient to give them a variety of options. It’s up to them to choose what they want to do.”
Still, not all patients are comfortable speaking to their doctor about cannabis. Shields notes, “A lot of patients are kind of intimidated [to have this conversation], particularly with a physician, who are kind of put on a pedestal.”
This is why it is so important for physicians to embrace education about medical cannabis and play an active role in deconstructing the stigmas. Fortunately, there is some hope. Slowly but surely, physicians are beginning to come around.
Exploring Patient Options and HCA Programs
When the HCA program first launched, the reaction was heavy with uncertainty. Now, only three years later, Shields sees a lot of the same physicians progressing their views as they witness legislative changes along with the personal accounts of their patient base.
Ultimately, the benefits of the Holistic Cannabis Academy program as not just for patients, but for healthcare professionals as well.
“If they have this level of competency, they can offer something that the health coach down the street doesn’t have, and therefore more clients will be interested to come to them. They can build their business, their practice, and generate revenue.”
As for patients who wish their own doctors would take the HCA program, Shields says they can offer some resources. While the HCA will not give out medical advice, they will inform patients about how to find good information on cannabis to take back to their doctors.
Student by student, the Holistic Cannabis Academy continues to educate all manner of health care practitioners about the benefits of medical cannabis, and in a world that is rapidly embracing cannabis reform, this education will grow in value for both curious, hopeful patients, and the practitioners who treat them.
Editor’s Note: After this article was published, HCA’s Cannabis Practitioner program to train health professionals with medical cannabis education was approved by the Commission of Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.