The backlog in GMC hearings caused by lockdown will create ‘unavoidable’ stress for GPs facing investigation – with some cases potentially being ‘impossible’ to resolve, the UK’s super regulator has said.
In a new report on regulation during the pandemic, the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA) – which oversees the GMC – added that it expects virtual hearings to continue to play a ‘significant role’ moving forward.
In September, the PSA told the GMC it ‘needs to look at’ using online hearings for more fitness-to-practise (FTP) cases – despite concerns that it could lead to members of the public making recordings and sharing footage on social media.
The PSA, which oversees all healthcare regulators, said in its report yesterday that the postponement of most hearings due to the national lockdown has caused a ‘significant’ build-up of FTP cases that ‘will need to be addressed’.
Referring to the pandemic causing hearings to be postponed, the report noted: ‘It was recognised that this would create a backlog of cases awaiting hearing and increase the overall stress on all participants, but under the circumstances this was unavoidable.’
An assessment is needed ‘in due course’ of whether pandemic changes to FTP had ‘reduced employers’ burden or led to serious cases being missed or delayed’, it said.
The backlog will mean it is ‘likely that some cases will prove impossible to resolve’ as evidence becomes ‘less accessible’, witnesses ‘disengage’ and ‘memories fade’, the report added.
The PSA also said regulators including the GMC should formally evaluate virtual hearings, acknowledging that many defence organisations were ‘uneasy’ about them and expressed a number of ‘legitimate concerns’.
However, it added: ‘We would expect virtual hearings to continue to play a significant role and, while they will not be suitable for every case, they appear to have substantial advantages for registrants and witnesses.’
The super regulator acknowledged in the autumn there were concerns about ‘privacy’ issues, with a ‘danger’ that recordings from hearings could be shared on social media, but said it had found ‘no evidence’ of such incidents.
Yesterday’s report added: ‘Online hearings have the potential to be more accessible for the public and whilst we heed some of the concerns expressed about this believe it is in the public interest for hearings to be held in public.’
Meanwhile, the PSA also recommended ‘careful further consideration’ of how ‘context’ will be taken into account in the FTP process.
It has commissioned a review of ‘ethical dilemmas’ faced by healthcare professionals during the pandemic to be published this spring, it said.
A GMC spokesperson said: ‘We know that going through an investigation can be stressful for doctors and we have committed throughout the pandemic to taking a proportionate approach to cases which balances public protection with the wellbeing of all involved.
‘We continue to work closely with the [GMC’s] Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service to progress cases as swiftly as possible within current Covid guidelines, using a combination of virtual and in-person hearings.’
The GMC has pledged to take the ‘unpredictable circumstances’ of the pandemic into account when assessing cases, after Pulse revealed three complaints had been made against GPs, including an allegation of a doctor’s failure to wear appropriate PPE.
The report also reiterated recent calls for ‘urgent’ regulatory reform, warning against an ‘unduly prolonged process’.
It comes as GPs were last month given 12 weeks to respond to plans for sweeping GMC reforms, including quashing the GMC’s powers of appeal.