GPhC Fitness to Practise Investigations – Some Do’s and Don’ts
The GPhC’s annual Fitness to Practise report for 2017-2018 shows that its register had 55,258 pharmacists and 23,367 pharmacy technicians. It also shows that 2,333 concerns were raised with the regulator during the year – a rise of 23.5% from the previous year. The word “concerns” is usually a polite euphemism for “complaints”. If we assume that every complaint related to an individual registrant and that no registrant was the subject of more than one complaint, it means that every pharmacist and technician had a 3% chance that a complaint would be made against them last year; and the chances of any pharmacist or pharmacy technician getting through a 40-year career without a complaint to the regulator are vanishingly small.
Of course, not all complaints are justified, and one-third of the concerns received by the GPhC were rejected as “Outside our jurisdiction”. A further 40% resulted in no further action being taken. However, even in these cases the registrant will have received a letter from the GPhC, informing them that the concern has been received and that it is being investigated, so until the GPhC reached a conclusion, the pharmacist or technician will have had a very worrying and stressful time.
Registrants who are notified of an investigation shouldn’t panic. It’s natural to fear that one’s career might be over, but only a relatively small number of cases are referred every year to a full Fitness to Practise hearing. Of those that did last year, 41 resulted in a suspension of up to 12 months, and 26 resulted in removal from the register.
If you are notified by the GPhC that a concern has been received, here are some dos and don’ts:
- If you or the pharmacy is an NPA or Numark member or you are a PDA member, tell them straight away. Amongst other things, you may be entitled to a contribution towards legal fees.
- If you have a spouse or partner, tell them: you shouldn’t go through it alone, and it isn’t fair on them if the first they know of your problems is a call from the GPhC after a hearing. Spouses and partners will also help you focus if you have to give your lawyer a detailed account of what happened and what was going on in your life at the time.
- Check whether you need to inform NHS England.
- Co-operate with any investigations, but not without legal advice.
- Attend any hearing. Registrants who don’t are more likely to be struck off because they won’t have done anything to assure the Fitness to Practise Committee that they have insight into something that went wrong.
- Get proper legal advice. Dealing with healthcare fitness to practise cases is specialised, and registrants who go to a hearing without a lawyer who has experience of such cases are more likely to be struck off.
- Panic. If you own a business, you don’t have to sell it but if it is in your personal name you should get advice on transferring it to a company.
- Answer questions without legal advice. You aren’t likely to be interviewed by a GPhC inspector in person: you are more likely to receive a list of written questions from the GPhC’s lawyers. The letter will tell you that you don’t have to answer questions but it will also inform you that you have a duty to co-operate with the investigation and that anything you say can be used in evidence in any subsequent fitness to practise proceedings.
- Volunteer information you haven’t been asked for, unless you have discussed it with your lawyer first.
- Use the family lawyer or the lawyer who handled the purchase of your home or business without checking out their experience in healthcare fitness to practise cases. The same goes for any barrister your solicitor intends to instruct: a fitness to practise hearing involves very different considerations to those a barrister who practises in the criminal courts may be used to.
- Allow a family member to advise you on your case or represent you at a hearing. They will be too close to you to appreciate the real issues that the Fitness to Practise Committee will consider important.
- Try to defend the indefensible. This is where a good lawyer is invaluable because he or she will help you see things objectively. If you did something wrong, you will get credit for showing that you are aware of it – it is part of what regulators refer to as “insight”, and it can make the difference between being suspended and being struck off. If the Fitness to Practise Committee thinks you don’t have insight, it may conclude that there is a risk that whatever went wrong will be repeated.
Fitness to practise cases can take a long time to resolve. Get good legal advice and take one day at a time.
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