The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) says fitness-to-practise (FtP) hearings should continue to be held remotely for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians where it is “fair and practical for everyone involved”.
The Society was responding to a General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) consultation on a change to its procedural rules, which would provide express legal power to conduct some hearings and meetings remotely, as introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The consultation ran for 12 weeks and closed on 8 February 2022.
In its response, the RPS said that as registrants were more likely to attend remote hearings, they had the potential to improve patient safety as attendance offers “the opportunity to understand details and learn from cases”.
However, in a note of caution, it added that there is a risk that a remote hearing could lead to their “interactions and non-verbal signs” to be “misinterpreted or missed completely” in cases where witnesses need to be cross-examined.
The response also said that remote hearings must not create inequalities of experience; for example, where a participant has hearing and visual impairments, or for individuals with neurodiversity.
The Society added that it is important that “the impact of remote hearings is evaluated as there may well be outcomes that none of us had foreseen”.
The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) largely echoed the RPS’s feedback. Its consultation response said: “We do not see any reason why the GPhC shouldn’t continue to hold virtual hearings where this will not affect the integrity and fairness of the hearing.”
It added that while it was pleased that GPhC has “outlined its commitment to holding in-person hearings where necessary”, the risk of witness interference should be taken into consideration in a remote hearing — something that they “note is not currently covered by the GPhC’s remote hearings guidance”.
The Pharmacy Law and Ethics Association was less positive about the move, arguing that remote hearings should only be held “if the registrant consents and it is fair and practical to do so” because hearings often involve life-altering decisions.
“Remote hearings are, by their nature, an isolating experience and unrepresented registrants in particular may be less able to give as good an account of themselves than if they were physically present,” its response added, going on to flag the potential for witness interference in remote hearings.
In a section on the background of the remote hearing proposals, the GPhC consultation document states: “Before holding any hearing in this way we asked the individual concerned or their representative for their consent. If we did not get this consent, the hearing was postponed.”
A spokesperson for the GPhC told The Pharmaceutical Journal on 14 February 2022 that the regulator was grateful to everyone who participated in the consultation.
“We are currently analysing the responses and feedback we have received,” the spokesperson added.
“Once this is complete, we will prepare a consultation analysis report to be taken to our council, in May 2022, for their consideration. Thereafter, we plan to publish our analysis and an explanation of the decisions we take on our website.”
The consultation feedback comes after a report published by the PSA on 7 February 2022 found that the GPhC had failed to meet three FtP standards related to transparency and clarity, timeliness and support for people involved in the process.