The Government has published plans to update legislation on the regulation of healthcare professionals that would enable swifter resolution of fitness to practise investigations.

A consultation document, published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) last week (24 March), said that there is currently ‘considerable variation’ in the fitness to practise powers available to medical regulators.

It set out plans to introduce a three-stage fitness to practise process for all regulators, which would include an initial assessment stage, a case examiner stage, and a panel stage.

At initial assessment, regulators will have a duty to consider any concern that is received about one of their registrants and to determine whether there is a basis for onward referral.

Cases will be resolved more quickly by allowing ‘more cases to be concluded earlier through accepted outcome decisions made by case examiners’, the document said, and by a ‘broader range of measures (including issuing a warning, applying conditions to a registrant’s practice, suspending their registration, or removing the registrant from the register)’.

If a registrant found to be impaired to practice does not accept the findings of the case examiner and/or their proposed outcome, the case will be referred to the fitness to practice panel.

The DHSC said the changes would provide a ‘consistent regulatory framework for fitness to practise across all the regulators’ and allow for ‘more cases to be concluded earlier’.

It added that this will deliver protection more quickly, and will also be better for registrants, employers, those who raise a concern about a registrant and the wider public.

The changes would also free-up ‘regulators to focus more on supporting the professional standards of all registrants,’ the document said.

‘A real opportunity’

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) launched a consultation on its own fitness to practise process last year, after concerns were raised by the Professional Standards Authority.

The consultation, which ran from 27 October 2020 to 22 January 2021, outlined plans to move away from the current process which, according to the GPhC, could ‘at times’ be ‘adversarial and slow, and [could] often have an unintended adverse impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people involved.’

Duncan Rudkin, chief executive of the GPhC, welcomed the Government’s consultation as a ‘real opportunity to improve health professional regulation’.

‘The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated why we need the powers to enable us to quickly change the way we work, in response to external challenges and opportunities in and for pharmacy,’ he said.

‘And we support the proposals to strengthen the oversight of the GPhC and other regulators, to make sure we are using this flexibility appropriately on behalf of patients and members of the public.’

He added: ‘We would also strongly encourage patients and the public and the pharmacy professionals and pharmacy owners we regulate to respond. The voices of patients and health professionals need to be at the heart of this consultation, to help make sure that health professional regulation is fit for the future.’

The Governments’ consultation also proposed to ‘devolve many of the decisions about day to day procedures to the regulators themselves’.

The document said that the current legislation is ‘too detailed’ and can ‘inhibit changes needed to respond quickly to new circumstances’.

‘In many cases, regulators cannot adapt and change their practices without legislative change, which is a lengthy process,’ it added.