Whilst there are many things about the virus that is devastating, one positive is that it forced upon healthcare regulators the need to reform, adapt and do so quickly.  What this has shown is that fitness to practise regulation does not need to be drawn out, rigid and outdated.

There is no doubting the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the UK’s healthcare regulators.  This is certainly the view of the “super” healthcare regulator, the Professional Standards Authority that is responsible for oversight of the UK’s healthcare regulators.

It recently said it was impressed with the “genuinely agile and inclusive policy-making” that the pandemic forced on fitness to practise procedures and the “quality and agility of policy-making by regulators in the last seven months is in stark contrast to the inexcusable delay in tackling the many agreed flaws in statutory professional regulation that have been well documented for the best part of a decade.”

We must not forget that we are still in a pandemic and so a comprehensive picture of a reformed fitness to practise approach is still emerging but there are some glimpses of the future emerging:

Returning to practice – It was evident that “cutting corners” to get healthcare professionals back to practice was, on the whole, a success.  As a consequence, expect procedures for returning to practice to be reformed in the months to come.

Fitness to practise hearings – Virtual fitness to practise hearing are here to stay.  They are less stressful for registrants and costs less to operate.  This does not mean however that hearings in person will no longer feature.  There will still be occasions when a hearing in person is necessary particularly when the case is particularly serious in nature. 

Policy making – The PSA commented that “there have been rapid and pragmatic changes to operations and protocols to recognise the unprecedented times in which we have found ourselves.”  This new approach is likely to encapsulated the future of healthcare regulatory policy making.  As I referred to above, it is apparent that the PSA is no longer interested in “the inexcusable delay in tackling the many agreed flaws in statutory professional regulation.” 

The pandemic will be the catalyst for change in terms of healthcare regulatory policy making.  The future of policy making will be defined by “agility, genuine engagement and practical problem-solving.”

Care for registrants – Perhaps one of the most important changes to the fitness to practise landscape of the future is a genuine appreciation and understanding of the often very challenging work circumstances many healthcare professionals face everyday and how this might impact on their fitness to practise.

Contextual factors in fitness to practise is admittedly not a new concept but this pandemic has laid bare the reality of medical practise, difficult decisions and stressful workplaces.  In fairness to healthcare regulators, they have adapted to recognise the extraordinary circumstances presented and the need to take this into account when fitness to practice complaints are made.

However, the future of fitness to practise must carry this forward.  The PSA indicated that this genuine appreciation and understanding must not stop when the pandemic is over.

Some healthcare regulators have already begun to think about its future in the new world of fitness to practise defined by agility, genuine engagement and practical problem-solving.  For example, “Pandemic should be a catalyst for change in UK healthcare, says GMC Chair” and the NMC are consulting on a “plans to move towards a ‘new normal’.

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