Pharmacy regulator to anonymise fitness-to-practise investigations as safeguard against racial bias

Owing to overrepresentation of individuals from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in fitness-to-practise cases, the General Pharmaceutical Council will redact information relating to ethnicity in case papers.
General Pharmaceutical Council sign

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) will begin anonymising documents relating to potential fitness-to-practise (FtP) concerns that are considered by its investigating committee from October 2022, to reduce unconscious bias in its decision making.

The move to redact information comes as the GPhC published ethnicity information on pharmacy professionals who were subject to FtP concerns in 2021/2022.

In council papers, published on 8 July 2022, the GPhC said that it received 3,080 FtP concerns in 2021/2022, of which the regulator held ethnicity data for 771 different individuals involved, including 677 pharmacists and 94 pharmacy technicians.

“Of that total of 677 unique pharmacists, Asian or Asian British professionals account for 55.1% of concerns received,” the papers said, noting that this group “make up 39.3% of the register”.

“Black or black British professionals account for 10.5% of concerns received”, while making up 7.3% of the register, it added.

Meanwhile, “white professionals account for 26.1% of concerns received”, but make up 40.3% of the pharmacist register.

“There is overrepresentation of professionals from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in disciplinary processes in many sectors,” the papers note.

“Our data indicate disproportionality in the concerns we received in 2021/2022 compared to the profile of the register.”

To mitigate this, the GPhC papers said the regulator plans to carry out an “anonymisation project with the investigating committee, starting in October 2022, to see if there is a way to minimise unconscious bias in our decision-making”.

The investigating committee meets to consider whether a concern submitted to the GPhC needs to be referred to the FtP committee for a hearing and considers approximately 70 cases annually.

The papers explain that the investigating committee consideration “is a paper exercise” and therefore “lends itself well to a process of anonymisation of data through redaction of case papers”.

“The project will redact only information relating to ethnicity, including a person’s name, place of birth, religion and university studied at, all of which could inform panellists of the likely ethnicity of the professional,” it says, adding that the project will be reviewed after six months.

The regulator had previously announced in July 2020 that it was planning to trial redacting information that might identify a pharmacist’s ethnicity from documents seen by FtP investigating committees later in 2020.

This also formed part of the GPhC’s strategy for ‘Delivering equality, improving diversity and fostering inclusion’, which was published in April 2021.

The Pharmaceutical Journal revealed in February 2019 that nearly half of pharmacists suspended or removed from the register following FtP investigations over a three-year period were from a BAME background.

Commenting on the anonymisation project, Elsy Gomez Campos, president of the UK Black Pharmacist Association, said: “Any effort to reduce decisions based on biased belief is always welcomed. However, anonymising information that may identify individuals is only one step towards addressing the disproportionate number of BAME pharmacy professionals facing the fitness-to practise procedures.

“Actions, such [as] better cultural intelligence and cultural awareness training of decision makers and accountability of organisations making unsupported referrals, are examples of other interventions that must be considered if we are seeking long lasting cultural change.”

Paul Day, director of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, said the move to anonymise case files “should reduce, and hopefully remove entirely, the risk of unconscious bias in fitness-to-practise proceedings, and ensure decision makers focus on the relevant facts”.

“Monitoring of the impact of this change to see if a difference is achieved should look at both the impact on those registrants from minority groups, and also on the outcomes for those not from minority groups for who results could potentially move in the opposite direction until consistent outcomes apply for all, regardless of any protected characteristics,” he added.

The GPhC council papers also said, as part of a wider update on how the regulator is minimising the risk of potential biases in its FtP decision making, that “statutory committee members and relevant GPhC staff” undertook training sessions on antisemitism “following the [Professional Standards Authority]’s successful Section 29 appeal to the High Court in the case of Nazim Ali”.

In June 2021, the High Court quashed a decision by the GPhC to issue Ali with a warning following offensive comments made at an Al-Quds Day rally held in central London on 18 June 2017 and ordered the case to be reconsidered by the FtP committee.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, July 2022, Vol 309, No 7963;309(7963)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.149488

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