The number of concerns referred to the fitness to practise committee increased by a third in 2021/22 compared to the previous year, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has revealed.

The GPhC annual report, published last week, found that 79 concerns were referred to the fitness to practise committee in 2021/22 – an increase on the 59 referred in 2020/21 - while concerns going to an investigating committee increased from 24 to 38.

The investigating committee has the power to restrict practice or require supervision or retraining, issue letters or warnings. It can also refer to the fitness to practise committee, which can issue warnings, suspensions, conditions on practise or strike off orders.

The figures also showed that the overall number of concerns slightly increased from 2,998 in 2020/21 to 3,080 in 2021/22. The GPhC said there were no notable increases in an individual type of concern, making it ‘difficult’ to explain the increase because there were ‘many possible causes’.

Of these, the vast majority (2,577 or 87%) were closed at the triage stage – most commonly, with no further action (1,017) or because they were used as intelligence in inspectors’ work (1,056). A further 77 were closed after investigations with guidance and 113 with no further action.

The report also highlighted that the ‘challenges’ in regulating online pharmacy services, demand for which is increasing. It noted that it issued updated guidance for pharmacies providing services at a distance, including on the internet, after identifying some ‘serious’ patient safety concerns.

It also looked at the pharmacy register, revealing it contained 61,137 pharmacists, 24,928 pharmacy technicians and 13,844 pharmacists.

As of 31 March 2022, 3,378 pharmacists and 2,933 were temporarily registered, which was introduced for extra support during the Covid-19 pandemic. Temporary registrants will need to re-join the main register to practise after 30 September, which is when the temporary register closes.

Fitness to practise ‘improvements’

The GPhC report underlined that ‘making improvements’ in its fitness to practise processes is a ‘key priority’, after the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) review in February 2022 found the pharmacy regulator failed to meet three out of five fitness to practise standards.

The GPhC had satisfied four PSA categories, but has not met all the standards in the fifth category, which looks at fitness to practise.

The three standards not met in the fitness to practise category included customer services, transparency and clarity around certain processes and the timelines within which work is completed which the PSA said had ‘significantly declined’.

In its recent annual report, the GPhC said some of the planed improvement work to the fitness to practise process had been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It added: ‘Like many organisations we had to re-prioritise and adapt our plans during the pandemic. But we have managed to complete almost all the planned improvement actions, and we expect the PSA will see further improvements when they review our performance for 2021/22.’

Commenting on its strategy on managing concerns about pharmacy professionals launched in July 2021, it said: ‘The strategy explains how we will move away from an approach that can, at times, be confrontational and slow, and can often have an unintended adverse impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the people involved.

‘Instead, we are planning to take quick action to protect patients when we need to, while at the same time promoting a culture of learning and reflection that helps pharmacy professionals to remain practising when this is appropriate.’