“Without the AOP, I don’t know where I would be”
One member shares their experience of being the subject of a fitness to practise investigation – and the learnings they hope others can take away from their case
09 June 2022
The investigation started following my Stage 2 assessment in September 2018. There is a way to check the audit trail of records, I believe, which the assessor did. As soon as it dawned on me what he was doing, I knew I had to hold my hand up and say that, yes, I had amended records.
I still don’t know why I did it. It was something I was always very against when we would discuss fitness to practise issues in university. I don’t want to shift the blame away from myself – I know that I am responsible for my actions – but I think it was something that happened out of the desperation and the pressure I was feeling at the time.
When the assessor left, I knew I was in a world of trouble. I didn’t feel as though I could speak to anyone about it and the next few weeks were spent in terror, knowing what was coming.
A letter arrived from the College of Optometrists which brought up two records. One was a record in which I said I had dispensed a low vision aid, though I had not. The second was in relation to a record where, on seeing a patient, I had not completed a new record visit but had attached the findings to the existing record and dated it contemporaneously. This was later dropped from the investigation.
Two lead assessors came to the practice to investigate. Aside from amending the records, one of my biggest regrets is not being more vocal at this point. With hindsight, I should have mentioned that there were other records, but I didn’t know which ones I had amended, or when.
With the assessors coming to investigate, I thought I would leave them to do their job. But because of that, later down the line more charges were brought against me saying that I had been dishonest as they identified a total of nine records that had been amended.
Knowing when to ask for help
I didn’t see it at the time, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know there were many factors involved that were affecting me.
I felt panicked throughout a lot of my pre-registration period. While many people had started in summer, I started my placement at the end of September 2017, so I already felt that I was playing catch-up. My peers seemed to have so much help and to be flying through their visits with ease, but I had needed to postpone some of my visits as I just wasn’t getting the testing time. I didn’t feel supported.
This was a new experience for me. I had always done well academically and in work, and I’ve never had to ask for help. In my cultural background, I’ve always been expected to do things, and asking for help feels almost like a sign of weakness. But I realise now, that asking for help is a strength.
I felt I had nowhere to turn. I had strongly considered leaving my place of work, but there were no guarantees that where I would move would yield better results, or that I would be able to easily find a new placement - especially one close to my family.
My mother had been ill for a very long time and I was her primary carer. This was something I had been doing through university, but having a nine-to-five role and needing to travel further put more pressure on me and meant I had less time to devote to her.
Then, at the time around the Stage 2 assessment, my father became seriously ill and was taken into intensive care with a severe brain infection. While I was on compassionate leave with my father in hospital, I was writing a letter back to the College to explain what I had done, with no way to go back and check which records had been amended.
After I received the letter from the College, I spoke to a paralegal at the AOP and was assigned to a solicitor. They were calm and helpful, and talked me through the process.
For me, it felt like it was the end of the world. I was terrified that I would be judged for what I had done, even by the people who would be representing me. I would have thought it would be easy for the AOP, who deal with these issues time and again, to become desensitised to it. But they treated me like a human being – like I mattered. I felt a lot of relief from not being judged.
As I wrote my response to the College, the AOP gave me information on what to be aware of, or things that I wouldn’t have thought to include. That’s where the expertise of the AOP came in. If I didn’t have that support, I don’t think I would have been able to draft a letter that addressed the issues I needed to cover.
I contacted the General Optical Council to explain that I was being investigated by the College in relation to the records, and they opened a Fitness to Practise case against me.
After the College’s investigation concluded, and having admitted everything, they informed me that I couldn’t continue at my place of work. I would be moved back to Stage 1 and would have to continue at another practice. I spoke to employment solicitors at the AOP who helped me to reach a good outcome whereby I agreed to resign from the practice and wasn’t liable for any of the training fees.
I had stopped my training around the Stage 2 assessment so I could look after my parents. Even though I was told I could carry on my pre-reg in a different practice, it did not feel right to me to carry on somewhere else as if nothing had happened.
If I could go back and change that, I would. Because it has been more difficult to get back into the pre-reg scheme and restart than it would have been if I had managed to qualify. I should have continued doing what I loved. The patients made everything for me and I had a great rapport with them. That is one of the main reasons I want to get back to optometry, and one of the things I missed even as I went through this experience.
Because more than two years and several months had elapsed, I was removed from the pre-reg scheme, but the AOP helped me to appeal the decision so that I can restart.
Peace of mind when “anything can happen”
The AOP seems to have a great working relationship with the College and the GOC. They know all the boxes to tick and the things to address. It made an extremely difficult process easier.
Without the AOP, I don’t know where I would be. As I was a student, I was fortunate that I could benefit from the free membership. Going forwards, however, it is something I would never want to be without.
I’ve spoken to many practitioners over the years; optometrists, GPs, dentists, pharmacists. Anything can happen – whether your own fault or not – and no matter how great you do your job, there will always be someone who is not happy with what you’ve done or the way you have done it. Regulators have a duty to investigate these things.
Knowing the AOP has my back, and is in my corner, is a huge relief and very reassuring. There is peace of mind in knowing the AOP are experts in dealing with optometrists and willing to fight the fight. You can’t put a price on that peace of mind.
Everyone at the AOP was lovely. I don’t think you can feign the amount of care and thought that was given to me. One lady in particular at the AOP helped me a lot. I could call any time and she would speak to me and help me through.
I was offered to speak to the Peer Support Line. It was something that I didn’t end up using, but the fact it was offered to me showed they understood, or were even willing to try to understand what I was going through and offer that support, and it took a bit of the load off of me.
The importance of records
I know it should never have happened. The experience has highlighted to me just how important medical records are in the scope of healthcare, and the fact that, though no harm was done to patients, the risk for harm was there. It has hammered home how important these things are; to not amend records, to always complete records contemporaneously, and if there is anything to add, it must be dated.
The outcome of the GOC’s Fitness to Practise case; which concluded in March this year, is an immediate nine month suspension, with no review. It’s been a positive outcome and if someone else was in this position, I would be over the moon for them, but it still weighs heavy on me that I have a nine month suspension against my name.
When I went through this experience, I told many of my peers as a warning: “Though it’s something you know not to do, let me serve as a reminder – don’t fall into that trap.”
I hope that by sharing my story it will serve as a reminder to others that, no matter what you are going through, try to reach out and ask for help. If a situation isn’t working for you, you need to do something to change it. You cannot allow yourself to continue going through a bad experience, as it does affect the way you think and behave even if you don’t realise it.
I do feel so much relief, as it has been dragging on for so long and now I can move forward. And, because of the hard work of the AOP, there is still the potential for me to go back into the profession.
Please note, names have been removed from this story to respect the member’s request for anonymity.