If there’s one thing we need after the past two pandemic-wracked years, it’s people who know how to plan for a crisis. That certainly applies to Gisela Abbam, the new chair of the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), who took office in March 2022.
Abbam has been a commissioner for the National Preparedness Commission — a body that promotes better preparedness for major crises — since November 2020. And she has faced her first challenge as chair of the GPhC already, with the problems some foundation trainees experienced with the registration exam in June 2022 (although this interview took place before that happened).
She’s held senior roles at PerkinElmer and GE Healthcare, chaired the British Science Association between 2019 and 2022 and was named 2019’s black British business person of the year in the Black British Business Awards.
Meeting her for the first time, during a Zoom chat on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, she talks about pharmacy regulation, and her priorities as GPhC chair and as a member of the UK commission on pharmacy professional leadership.
What attracted you to the role of chair of the General Pharmaceutical Council?
Over the past two years, in particular, we have realised that pharmacies, especially community pharmacies, have played a great role in terms of the response to COVID-19: the vaccination programme, and supporting patients locally. And obviously, regulation is important to support patient safety. For me, patient safety is key. So that’s why I decided to take up this role.
We spoke to your predecessor a few months ago and he thought there was a question about whether the registration assessment is still the best way of determining if people are ready to practice as a pharmacist. What is the future of that?
At the moment we are looking to review it, especially in relation to the independent prescribing that will be taking effect from 2026. And once we’ve determined what should be the next course in terms of what changes are required, we will then share that.
The ethnicity awarding gap, in both the registration assessment and the MPharm, is an ongoing problem. What should be done to address this?
I think it’s getting to the root of why that is the case, because this is not the case in every profession. It’s certainly not the case in medicine, from the statistics I’ve looked at. So it’s really getting an understanding of what the issue is and how it can be resolved. And it’s something that we are reviewing at the moment.
You are involved in the UK commission on pharmacy professional leadership. What can we expect from that?
We weren’t involved in the set-up of it. But I’m really keen, obviously, to focus on the GPhC viewpoint as a regulator, and how we can support professional leadership. And so I will be getting guidance and input from Council members in particular, as to what we should be saying in terms of prioritisation, but we’re keen to be part of this and really support professional leadership, especially from our perspective to ensure patient safety and care.
During your first few months in the role, what have you been hearing from pharmacy teams?
One of the key things is workforce challenges. Not having enough pharmacists, in particular, especially in community pharmacies, and having challenges with getting locums as well.
The second is about independent prescribing; what kind of clinical services, how will they be assessed? And how will people be supported through it?
Those are the main ones that people have raised to me since I started, but in terms of my priorities, one of the broader ones I have is about health care integration and how we work more closely across all the different healthcare regulators and professionals, including the NHS. We have the issue of patient records, which my predecessor handed over to me: that for us to be able to achieve independent prescribing as effectively as promised, we need more than just read-only access, we should be able to record as well. And so that’s something that needs a wider discussion on: how do we ensure this is achieved? It’s important for patient safety: without that, if you’re an independent prescriber, it means that there’s a gap in what is known about a patient, which is not right.
What are your priorities now, in the short term, and in the longer term?
We have a vision for 2030, which is for safe and effective pharmacy care at the hearts of healthier communities. And we have five key strategic priorities. I’ve taken four. The first one, I talked about: the broader healthcare stakeholder engagement, which is going out and meeting with other people that we normally don’t work with, but are part of the healthcare system. So we understand their role, and they also understand the role of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians as well. I feel that is critical.
My other key priorities are on education and training, where we are setting up a post-registration assurance group, which will look at the revalidation, independent prescribing and all the clinical services that are needed by our registrants.
And the other one is on regulatory reform and other issues that are affected, as I mentioned, one, which is the patient record. The other one is online pharmacy, which has caused a lot of concern as well. We are monitoring it quite closely and getting information through our inspectors, but we feel that beyond what we do, there might be some wider issues that we need to look at; how do we resolve that as well?
And then my final one is on equality, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI), in terms of EDI strategy, both internally and externally. We’ve developed a really extensive EDI strategy and we’re going to use that to help us in terms of collecting data, monitoring and making sure that there’s also the breadth of equality and diversity across our profession as well. Those are the key priorities; they’re keeping me busy!
Is there anything more you can tell us about that and what you’ll be doing in terms of online pharmacies?
For online pharmacy, from my perspective, it’s really monitoring — because we have had a number of fitness-to-practise cases involving pharmacy professionals, who were or are working in online pharmacies.
There’s still a lot to be done. But I think that people are getting the message that it’s important. And the important aspect, too, is that patients are beginning to see that they need to do some checks themselves and not just buy from an online pharmacy without ensuring that there’s a proper system in place: so they’ve spoken to the GP or checked and shared their records as well.