The coronavirus pandemic continues to present unpredictable and unprecedented challenges to health and social care. Community pharmacy is feeling the strain.
Increased working hours to meet demand, staff shortages due to self-isolation requirements, and investing time and resources to ensure adherence to COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines are to name but a few of the practical realities currently facing pharmacy owners.
But rather than shying away, many pharmacies remain at the forefront of local healthcare provision and some are now supporting delivery of the vaccine.
Alert to these increasing burdens, and seemingly in an effort to reassure their registrants, the General Pharmaceutical Council and other health regulators took the unusual step of issuing a statement on 13 January.
It recognises the pressures being encountered in the current climate with, amongst other things, an appreciation that "…in highly challenging circumstances, professionals may need to depart from established procedures in order to care for patients using health and social care services."
Does this statement amount to a relaxation of the GPhC’s Standards? Is the GPhC inferring that it will guarantee some form of "COVID-19 immunity", or a stay in regulatory inspections and investigations during the pandemic? In short, unfortunately not.
In light of the fast-moving environment, the GPhC is alive to pharmacists feeling anxious about concerns being raised over their decision-making, and their actions being scrutinised.
This applies particularly in those instances where difficult and prompt judgment calls need to be made, which might be in the best interests of service users but not necessarily in strict adherence to the Standards and protocols.
Examples or guidance specific to the pandemic are not offered, though. Instead, the GPhC suggests pharmacists make an assessment of risk and exercise professional judgment in accordance with the guidance, values and principles set out in the Standards. It says that the regulatory Standards and framework already enable flexibility in decision-making in a wide range of situations.
While the statement is well-intentioned, it offers scant reassurance that pharmacists should do anything other than continue to ensure that all aspects of their decision-making and services remain compliant.
This does not equate to any relaxation of the Standards nor signal a departure from, or variation in existing fitness-to-practice investigations and inspection processes. These should always take into account the specific facts and circumstances of a particular case.
Although the GPhC has paused routine inspections, it is continuing with intelligence-led inspections during the pandemic and is immediately responding to intelligence and concerns raised about particular pharmacies.
The number of concerns reported to the GPhC has steadily increased year on year and the regulator continues to dedicate significant resources to its investigations and inspections.
This does not mean that pharmacy owners should be apprehensive about continuing with the exemplary work that they are doing during this busy and high-pressured period.
Pharmacies should, however, continue to invest the necessary time and resources to ensure that all aspects of their service remain compliant with the GPhC’s regulatory requirements.
Pharmacy owners need to continue to appraise their governance arrangements and be satisfied that staff are meeting their professional and legal obligations. Policies, procedures and records need to be kept under regular review and adequate safeguards in place to ensure that risks continue to be assessed and managed, and that patient safety and wellbeing is not compromised.
The current pandemic has meant that, now more than ever, businesses need to remain responsive and agile, ready to adapt to the ever-changing landscape and government and sector guidance.
The article was first published in Independent Community Pharmacist.