The number of pharmacists facing fitness-to-practise (FtP) proceedings, whose cases have been open more than a year, rose to 430 cases in 2022/2023, a letter to an MP has highlighted.
The Professional Standards Authority (PSA), which regulates the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), wrote to Steve Brine, chair of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, on 18 September 2023 to outline concerns over the GPhC’s FtP processes after it failed to meet a PSA standard on FtP timeliness for the fifth year in a row.
In the letter, published on 18 October 2023, the PSA noted that the GPhC had launched a five-year FtP strategy in July 2021 and created a Fitness to Practise Standards Board “to try to improve performance in this area”.
“However, the GPhC’s work has had little impact in this review period in terms of timeliness, and the number of open cases more than a year old has increased again, from 298 [cases in 2021/2022] to 430 [cases in 2022/2023],” the letter said.
“We will be closely monitoring the GPhC’s work to improve the timeliness of its fitness to practise process so that we can understand its progress and raise concerns if its work does not appear to be effective.”
Data in the PSA’s most recent review of the GPhC’s performance, published on 25 September 2023, showed that the number of pharmacist FtP cases open for more than three years also rose to 77 cases in 2022/2023 — the highest in five years — from 49 cases in 2021/2022.
The data also showed an increase in the number of cases open for between two and three years, from 66 cases in 2021/2022 to 103 cases in 2022/2023 — also the highest in five years.
Following the PSA’s review of the GPhC, the PSA said it had also written to Steve Barclay, the health and social care secretary, as a result of the regulator’s failure to meet all of its FtP standards for the fifth year in a row.
On 22 September 2023, the GPhC responded to the PSA report in a letter to Brine, which said that it was “implementing a comprehensive action plan to deliver improvements in our fitness to practise work”.
“Our action plan covers our people, process and technology and these continue to be the three areas of our focus. The work we have undertaken so far has enabled us to understand the throughput we need to achieve at each stage of our decision-making process, to ensure we are on a positive trajectory towards a reasonable standard of timeliness,” the letter said.
In a statement commenting on the number of open FtP cases, the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) said that it “shares the concerns identified in the PSA report regarding cases that have been open for years”.
“Our members report frustration at the lack of progress with long running investigations where there are limited updates on what is happening,” it said.
“Pharmacists’ lives are put on hold whilst these investigations are ongoing, with one member recently walking away from the profession to start another career due to limited information being provided on the progress of an investigation that started over two years ago.”
Mark Pitt, director of defence services at the PDA, said: “Pharmacists cannot plan their next career move or even look to move house whilst these investigations are hanging over them. We call upon the GPhC to invest time and resources in clearing the backlog.
“Where there are necessary reasons for a pause in progress, the GPhC should always keep registrants regularly updated on the progress of investigations, including providing time estimates for completion of each stage and an explanation of what will happen next.”
Claire Anderson, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Timely resolution of fitness-to-practise cases is crucial for maintaining public trust in the pharmacy profession and any delays are a matter of serious concern.
“It’s crucial for regulatory bodies to address these challenges quickly and effectively. Pharmacy teams are committed to delivering high-standard care and a transparent and efficient regulatory process is fundamental to upholding these standards.
“We also know from previous engagement with our members that the length of time some fitness-to-practise cases take is a huge burden and needs to be reduced. When registrants are investigated, whether formally or informally, there are adverse implications for their careers, reputation and wellbeing.”
A spokesperson for the GPhC said that, as of 23 October 2023, it had 1,545 open FtP cases, of which 42 cases were over 12 months old.
“Our priority is to resolve our fitness-to-practise cases in a timely way, first and foremost to protect the public through responding to the concerns of the public and patients, and to ensure fairness and transparency to registrants,” the spokesperson said.
“This is key to our commitment to deliver effective, consistent and fair regulation.
“We have put in place and are implementing a comprehensive action plan to deliver improvements in our fitness-to-practise work and remain fully committed to achieving this.”