In 2013, the GPhC banned a pharmacist from providing emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) for three years because he had given a patient "a distressing explanation of why his religion regarded EHC as morally wrong". The fitness-to-practise committee said the registrant should have referred the patient to another pharmacist.
It is interesting to reflect on this case now, because of the GPhC consultation on religion, personal values and beliefs [which closed last week]. In the consultation, the GPhC asked how pharmacy staff should factor personal values and religious beliefs into their care provision. Sensitive issues may involve a reluctance to provide:
• fertility medicines
• hormonal therapies
• mental health and wellbeing services
• substance misuse services
• sexual health services.
The GPhC’s new standards – due to come into effect on May 1 – propose that pharmacy professionals should not be able to refuse services based on their religion, personal values or beliefs. The GPhC suggests that referral to another pharmacist should not be an option.
In some circumstances, these new GPhC rules could be disproportionately onerous to pharmacy staff. They may unfairly expose them to the risk of fitness-to-practise proceedings.
For example, not all services sought by a patient justify the request being prioritised. It does not follow that if any product or service has not been provided, then the person seeking it has not received safe and effective care. A pharmacist might be justified in referring the patient elsewhere, even if that results in a delay before the patient's request is met.
The proposed standards also state that if pharmacists are unwilling to meet certain patient needs, they should not “take up certain working roles”. This seems disproportionately restrictive, because it does not make allowances for pharmacists with certain beliefs who may be the only applicants for a job in an isolated area, or in a city centre with late opening hours.
Pharmacists should be open with prospective employers about ways in which their values may impact upon their ability to provide certain services. But if there are no other applicants for the job, it is surely better that most services are provided than that posts remain unfilled.
David Reissner is senior healthcare partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)