Pharmacists are likely to be dealt with fairly if they find themselves up before the professional regulator’s fitness-to-practise committee, according to research published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice
on 3 November 2014.
Cathal Gallagher from the department of pharmacy at University of Hertfordshire and colleagues carried out a retrospective study of General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) fitness-to-practise hearings held between 1 October 2011 and 30 September 2012.
They found that, when deciding sanctions, the committee applied its own guidance governing mitigating and aggravating circumstances.
“A pharmacist would have little cause to feel hard done by,” says Gallagher. “The GPhC has acted fairly and in accordance with its rules.”
The researchers only looked at cases where a pharmacist was appearing before the committee for the first time and issues of criminal convictions or cautions, or professional misconduct or performance, were involved. Cases involving health were excluded.
They scrutinised the transcripts of 51 cases to discover whether the committee had properly applied its own indicative sanctions guidance. They also examined whether the committee took into account the implications of past High Court rulings, which mean they have to consider an individual’s current fitness to practise when reaching their decision.
The indicative sanctions guidance spells out that the committee has to consider mitigating or aggravating features and also provides advice about when a pharmacist should be removed from the register in cases involving dishonesty or serious potential harm.
The researchers found that when risk of harm was involved, a pharmacist was twice as likely to be removed from the register than when no risk of harm existed (29% versus 14% of cases).
Where dishonesty was involved, removal from the register was eight times more likely compared with cases where no dishonesty existed (33% versus 4% of cases).
The researchers also conclude that “in general” the committee took into account the pharmacist’s performance and behaviour since the misconduct occurred, which reflected its understanding that it had to look at the individual’s current, and not past, fitness to practise.
Duncan Rudkin, chief executive and registrar of the GPhC, says the GPhC will reflect on the researchers’ findings. “We will shortly be publishing a discussion paper on a number of proposed updates to the guidance our committees use when making decisions on sanction,” he says. “These updates will ensure that the guidance is more accessible to all those involved in the fitness-to-practise process and that decisions remain fair, proportionate and clear.”
John Murphy, director of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), said the overall findings were broadly in accordance with the PDA’s experience but he had concerns.
“The spectrum for dishonesty seems to be widening and some acts of misconduct that may not have been labelled as dishonest in the past, are now being charged as thus,” he says.
Murphy highlighted the falsifying of medicines use reviews – which may bring a pharmacist no financial gain – as now falling under the same umbrella as fraud and theft.
“Although there is the right of appeal against the severity or inconsistency of sanctions in the High Court, in reality the registrant has no chance of overturning the decision,” he explains.
Case law, he said, illustrates that the High Court is slow to interfere in any sanction imposed by a fitness-to-practise committee, unless there has been a procedural or legal error.
“This means that to challenge the decision of any healthcare regulator fitness to practise committee is almost futile and, as far as the PDA is concerned, seems at odds with the principles of natural justice,” he says.