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Watchdog unsure GPhC would have improved ‘timeliness’ of FtP cases without pandemic

The General Pharmaceutical Council’s (GPhC) timeliness in progressing fitness-to-practise (FtP) cases declined “significantly” in 2020/21 and it is unclear “whether it would have improved without the pandemic”, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has said.

The GPhC met all the standards across four PSA categories, including education and training, the watchdog said in its annual performance review of the GPhC, published today (February 7).

However, it failed to meet three out of five standards within the fitness-to-practise category, the PSA added in its report – which covers the period from March 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021.

The watchdog – which oversees 10 statutory bodies that regulate health and social care professionals in the UK – noted that its existing concerns about the GPhC’s “customer service and the transparency of certain fitness-to-practise processes have not yet been fully addressed”.

It also questioned whether the GPhC could have cut down the time taken to progress fitness-to-practise cases, “had it not been for the pandemic”.

However, the PSA acknowledged that the GPhC had made progress in “implementing a wide-ranging action plan to address concerns reported about its fitness-to-practise function” in its previous review.

As it is the “third consecutive year” the regulator has not met these standards, the PSA said it “will be monitoring the GPhC’s performance in these areas closely”.

The GPhC agreed that it has to improve its fitness-to-practise processes (read its full response below), and committed to making it a "key priority".

 

Timeliness for case progression “declined again”

 

The PSA saw a decline in the regulator’s ability to progress fitness-to-practise cases in a timely manner “before the pandemic” and continued to do so in 2020/21, it wrote.

During that period, the median timeframes for all the processes within fitness-to-practise cases increased, with three cases seeing “20 weeks or more” added to their processing time.

Though it questioned whether improvements to this could have been made outside of the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic, the PSA acknowledged that COVID-19 had affected “the GPhC’s resources, logistics and ability to obtain information from third parties and hold hearings”. Combined, these factors “contributed to the deterioration in timeliness this year”, it said.

However, the PSA wrote that it could not “quantify the extent of this”.

The GPhC suggested measures to improve this, including “securing additional support with the taking of evidence”, the PSA added.  

“We will monitor the implementation and impact of these measures,” the PSA said.

 

No evidence of inappropriate closures of cases

 

C+D reported last year that the GPhC had closed a “high proportion of cases” (63%) at the triage stage of the fitness-to-practise process between 2018 and 2019, “higher than the proportion closed at the same stage by the other regulators” the PSA oversees.

This year’s audit however – which reviewed 69 cases closed by the GPhC during the review period – “allayed” the PSA’s “potential concerns about the high proportion of cases being closed at triage”.

It determined that most of the triaged outcomes were “reasonable” and saw no evidence of inappropriate closure of cases.

 

Irregular case updates

 

The regulator had at times failed to routinely provide fitness-to-practise parties with updates on their cases, the PSA found, with some participants not being notified of a case’s outcome at all.

A GPhC internal review found that about “two thirds” of the regulator’s correspondence with participants “addressed the complainant’s concerns, had clear reasons, was person-centred and displayed sensitivity”.

The GPhC promised to address the investigation stage of its process to “embed person-centred communications” by establishing an “online concerns form” and “updated information leaflets for witnesses”.

It will ask witnesses what “other forms of support” they might require.

 

FtP improvement “key priority”

 

The GPhC has committed to addressing the PSA’s concerns.

“It is a key priority for us to make improvements in our fitness-to-practise processes”, GPhC chief executive Duncan Rudkin said, aiming “first and foremost to meet the concerns of the public and patients, to ensure fairness to registrants, and to meet the standards of the PSA”.

Planned improvement work “started later than anticipated”, he continued, “because we needed to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges and pressures of the pandemic”.

“We are pleased that the performance report recognises the progress made in the particular circumstances of the pandemic”, Mr Rudkin added, saying that “it will take time to see evidence of the impact of some of these changes”.

Speaking at Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies conference last month, GPhC chair Nigel Clarke said the regulator must “improve the processes” of fitness-to-practise cases and speed up its investigations “as a matter of priority”.

 

No concerns with GPhC’s handling of registration exam

 

Some GPhC exam candidates complained to the PSA last year over the GPhC’s handling of the registration assessment during the pandemic.

However, the PSA wrote in its report that it does “not have concerns about the GPhC’s accreditation activities during the pandemic, because it adapted them in a reasonable and proportionate way”.

While the PSA is concerned “by the issues that arose with the registration assessment”, causing stress for many candidates, it acknowledged that the pandemic had created an “unprecedented” situation and that the GPhC took action to address the issues experienced by candidates.

  

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