The General Medical Council (GMC) is facing increasing pressure to address dubious business ethics, a leading healthcare lawyer has warned, as the regulator sets out further guidance on doctors' financial dealings with pharmacies.
David Reissner, head of healthcare at law firm Charles Russell, cautiously welcomed the GMC's decision to update its guidance later this month to give more detail on doctors' business interests in pharmacies.
"There is no real evidence that GP pharmacies act in any different way to other pharmacies"
Laurence Buckman, BMA
The GMC told C+D last week that the new guidelines would build on previous guidance, which had emphasised the importance of patient choice and warned against directing prescriptions.
But Mr Reissner said it remained to be seen whether the GMC would take action on its guidelines, due to be published on March 25.
Earlier this week, Charles Russell reported receiving an "increasing number of enquiries" about GPs' commercial activities, including allegations of directing prescriptions and anti-competitive prices.
"It's good news to know that the GMC is going to address these issues in more detail, although we will have to await the new guidance to know what protections will be in place to address inappropriate financial conduct by GPs," said Mr Reissner. "The GMC may find it is increasingly asked to step in to address such conduct in future, and we will have to see if it is willing to take action."
Last month, pharmacy leaders expressed fresh doubts over the ethics of GP-owned pharmacies, as LPCs and C+D readers reported dubious practices.
But the British Medical Association (BMA) maintained that conflicts of interest in GP-owned pharmacies were already "closely monitored on all sides".
"For GPs, there is the added stipulation that failing to declare an interest when taking a prescribing decision is a GMC offence, as well as a breach of BMA guidelines," said Laurence Buckman, chair of the BMA's GP committee. "There is no real evidence that GP pharmacies act in any different way to other pharmacies."
Mike Dixon, GP and chair of NHS Alliance, told C+D he had not personally come across GPs behaving unethically in their dealings with pharmacies. But he stressed that the GMC should come down hard on anyone breaching their guidelines.
"I don't think, in principle, I see a problem with [doctors owning pharmacies] but, in practice, it's all about transparency," Mr Dixon said. "I think the GMC will need to get tough where people are clearly taking financial advantage and patients aren't aware of what's happening."
The GMC previously covered doctors' interests in pharmacies in its Good Medical Practice guidance. On March 25, it will publish separate guidance on financial and commercial dealings and conflicts of interest, which will include a section on pharmacies.