The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has said it will begin anonymising documents relating to potential fitness-to-practise (FtP) concerns that are considered by its investigating committee, in a bid to 'minimise unconscious bias in decision-making’.

It comes after the regulator noted 'there is overrepresentation of professionals from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in disciplinary processes’.

In council papers published on 8 July, the GPhC said it had received 3,080 FtP concerns in 2021/2022, of which the regulator held ethnicity data for 771 people involved, including 677 pharmacists and 94 pharmacy technicians.

Of these pharmacists, Asian or Asian British professionals account for 55% of concerns received, the papers outline, noting that this group make up 39% of the register.

Black or black British professionals account for 11% of concerns received, while making up 7.3% of the register, the GPhC said.

Meanwhile, white professionals account for 26% of concerns received, but make up 40.3% of the register, according to the regulator.

'Our data indicates disproportionality in the concerns we received in 2021/22 compared to the profile of the register,' the GPhC said.

'We want to understand the underlying issues and contributory factors that result in the disproportionate concerns we receive, and to identify what we can do about this and where we can work with others to make a difference.'

But the regulator warned it is 'a complex area and no single action will address these issues’.

Anonymisation project

From October 2022, the GPhC said its investigating committee (IC), which meets to consider whether to refer a concern to the FtP committee for a hearing, will carry out an 'anonymisation project' to see if there is a way to 'minimise unconscious bias in our decision-making’.

It said the independent IC panellists are 'supportive' of the project, which will see information relating to ethnicity redacted, including a person's name, place of birth, religion and university studied.

'The IC meeting is a paper exercise where the committee only considers what has been submitted in writing,' the GPhC explained. 'It therefore lends itself well to a process of anonymisation of data through redaction of case papers.'

The impact of the project will be assessed on a monthly basis, with a 'more comprehensive review' after six months,' the regulator said.

In addition, 'many respondents to a consultation on the equality, diversity and inclusion strategy wanted to see specific proposals for anonymisation at other key decision-making stages,' the GPhC said, confirming it has 'started looking at the benefits, risks and feasibility of going beyond the commitments already made to consider the introduction of anonymisation at the earlier stages of the process’.

The regulator said: 'We will monitor and review the effectiveness of our planned work as it progresses and consider whether other actions are needed.'

As part of its programme of equalities-related training, the GPhC said it plans to run a training session for statutory committee members and relevant staff on Islamophobia, following on from earlier sessions on antisemitism.

It also intends to revise its hearings and outcomes guidance for decision-makers to 'include information on taking account of cultural factors when panels are deciding on an outcome,' it said, and 'will engage with stakeholders on these changes in a discussion paper in the autumn’.

PDA and RPS support anonymisation

Paul Day, The Pharmacists' Defence Association director, told The Pharmacist that the group supports this 'attempt to ensure no bias'.

He explained: 'Just as best practice in recruitment anonymises job applications, so removing the name and other identification of a registrant should reduce, and hopefully remove entirely, the risk of unconscious bias in Fitness to Practice proceedings, and ensure decision makers focus on the relevant facts.'

He said monitoring of the impact of the policy 'should look at both the impact on those registrants from minority groups, and also on the outcomes for those not from minority groups for who results could potentially move in the opposite direction'.

He added: 'However, while this change may remove any risk of bias once a concern is received by the regulator, it cannot remove any such bias that might exist amongst patients or in society in general who may originate the raising of concerns.

'Pharmacy exists within wider society and so we will not reach zero risk of bias until such time as the world as a whole is free of it.'

Meanwhile, an RPS spokesperson said: 'We welcome the trial of anonymous information related to ethnicity, and look forward to seeing the results of this project after a comprehensive review has been conducted. We support this as a step in the right direction to address systemic bias, and a way to create a fairer and more consistent approach to regulation of the profession.'

In February, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said the NHS needs more diversity within its local, regional and national leadership, after a major review into ethnic inequalities in healthcare.