The GMC has been told it ‘needs to look at’ using online hearings for more fitness-to-practise cases by the body overseeing all healthcare regulators.
In new guidance on carrying out FtP work during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA) noted there were concerns that online hearings could lead to members of the public making recordings and sharing footage on social media.
But it said it had ‘no evidence’ of this occurring so far in cases where online hearings have taken place.
The PSA also said obtaining a doctor’s consent for a hearing to be virtual ‘does not seem appropriate’.
However it noted regulators will need to weigh the advantages and risks of a virtual hearing against an in-person hearing and make a decision on a case-by-case basis.
Since lockdown commenced in March, regulators have held some hearings virtually, but these have tended to be in cases of urgent public interest.
They were largely review hearings and interim order hearings, with just a small proportion of substantive hearings.
The PSA’s new guidance said: ‘The pandemic is not over, and social distancing and other restrictions are likely to continue for some time, so it will be difficult for regulators to hold the same number of physical hearings (with all parties attending in the same place).
‘This means that regulators need to look at other options, such as greater use of wholly online hearings and “hybrid” hearings where part of the hearing takes place in one location and the remainder virtually.’
During a pandemic it may be appropriate to take action ‘swiftly’, without the level of consultation that would normally be held, said the PSA.
It said it should also remain possible for members of the public to observe the hearings, including by watching virtual hearings online.
But it noted that bodies representing registered healthcare professionals had expressed concerns, including those related to identification of witnesses, the ability to assess evidence, and whether hearings will be recorded or stored.
The organisations also said they were concerned about the ‘privacy of registrants and witnesses, and the danger that those observing virtual hearings may record extracts from those hearings and release them via social media’.
But the PSA said: ‘We have no evidence that this is actually happening in regulatory proceedings and we consider that it is possible to provide safeguards that will address the risks in the overwhelming majority of cases.
‘We do not consider that the fact that individuals or journalists may be more likely to observe the hearings is relevant.’
All ten healthcare regulators now intend to recommence ‘substantive’ FtP hearings in the next few weeks, with the GMC having already done so since July.
It comes as the GMC has received complaints about GPs ‘not wearing sufficient PPE’, including from patients. It has promised to take the ‘unpredictable circumstances’ of the pandemic into account when assessing cases.