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Health secretary alerted as GPhC fails FtP standard for fifth consecutive year

The regulators’ regulator has written to the health secretary under its "escalation policy" after a review found that the GPhC had failed to meet FtP timeliness standards for the fifth year running.

The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has written to health secretary Steve Barclay and health and social care committee (HSCC) chair Steve Brine to “raise [its] concerns” after the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) failed to meet a standard for the fifth consecutive year, it announced this week (September 25).

The PSA, which oversees 10 statutory bodies that regulate health and social care professionals in the UK, conducted a “periodic review” of the pharmacy regulator for 2022/23 to test its performance against 18 standards for “good regulation”.

Read more: FtP concerns from public spike as pharmacies see ‘increased pressures’

The annual review found that the GPhC had met 17 standards – improving its performance by two since its last audit by the PSA – but failed to meet the standard for the “timeliness” of fitness-to-practise (FtP) cases due to “serious and ongoing delays”.

The pharmacy regulator committed the "regaining" the timeliness standard and pledged to monitor its progress in this area "closely".


Escalation policy


According to the PSA, which accounts to parliament, the GPhC had “improved” the quality of its FtP decisions and its support for those involved in FtP cases since the watchdog last reviewed the regulator.

However, it said that the regulator still takes “too long to progress cases”, with the total number of older cases increasing.

“As this is the fifth year in a row that the GPhC has not met our standard for timeliness in fitness to practise, we have taken further action under our escalation policy,” it added.

Read more: GPhC: Pharmacist handed warning over 'antisemitic' remarks at political rally

As well as writing to the health secretary and HSCC chair, it said that it will “monitor the GPhC’s work to improve its performance in this area”.

According to the PSA’s escalation policy, the escalation of concerns is “likely to be exceptional” as “regulators do address the bulk of concern” raised in performance reviews.

“The process is designed to ensure that concerns are only escalated when they are serious and/or intractable,” it said.


GPhC: “An absolute priority”


Responding to the PSA’s review, the GPhC said on Monday (September 25) that it had updated Mr Barclay and the health select committee on its “commitment and action plan” for meeting the FtP timeliness standard.

GPhC chief executive Duncan Rudkin said that there was “still work to do” for the regulator to meet the FtP standard for timeliness, adding that resolving cases “in a timely way” is “an absolute priority” and that the council was “monitoring progress closely”.

Read more: Watchdog ‘not yet assured’ GPhC has fixed fitness-to-practise concerns

Mr Rudkin said that the delays “do not represent a risk to patient and public safety” because the GPhC had satisfied the PSA that it can take “swift effective action” when it identifies that the “risk of harm” is “elevated”.

And he stressed that the GPhC had “successfully regained two out of three” FtP standards – unmet since 2017/18 – thanks to its “comprehensive action plan”. 

“Notwithstanding these improvements, we remain fully committed to regaining…the timeliness standard,” he added.


Record backlog


Earlier this month, C+D reported that the GPhC itself had flagged that its “backlog” of 701 cases that were open at the initial assessment stage at the end of the quarter was “the highest it has ever been” in its most recent council papers.

At the time, the regulator revealed that it had performed worse in triaging new concerns and said that the decline in performance was “due to reduced capacity from three vacancies” in its initial assessment team. 

And in September last year, the PSA found in its annual review that the GPhC was still taking “too long to progress FtP investigations”.

Read more: Watchdog recognises GPhC work on FtP process, but says concerns remain

It nevertheless recognised at the time that the GPhC had introduced several initiatives to speed up its case progression, noting that the impact of these activities would take time to materialise.

As of January 2022, the PSA conducts a “periodic review” of each regulator every three years looking closely at all aspects of the regulator’s work, while it monitors performance focusing on areas of risk between these reviews.

Meanwhile, the GPhC announced this week that pharmacists on its temporary register will be automatically removed on April 1 unless they have applied to return to the permanent register.

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