The General Optical Council (GOC) has approved its revised standards of practice for optometrists, dispensing opticians and students in the UK.
The new standards were passed by the regulator at a council meeting held in London earlier this week (July 28), following a comprehensive consultation lasting almost three months.
Coming into effect from April 1, 2016, the revised standards will supersede the existing code of conduct for optical practitioners and students. All practitioners registered with the GOC will receive a copy of the new standards in December and will be required to declare they have read, understood and will abide by them as part of the regulator’s retention process.
According to the regulator, the standards have been designed to bring optics more in line with the other healthcare professions and will help registrants involved in enhanced community services in primary and secondary care.
The GOC stressed that flexibility is fundamental to the professions, with the regulator’s director of strategy, Alistair Bridge, saying that the new standards “give room [for practitioners] to apply personal judgment.”
The GOC was keen to highlight that the finalised standards fully reflect the findings of its consultation, launched in March this year, which canvassed responses from stakeholders across the sector and the wider public.
Chief executive and registrar of the GOC, Samantha Peters, said: “The new standards create a fantastic platform for the optical professions to develop in the future. We look forward to working with the stakeholders who have been so engaged during the consultation period to ensure their successful implementation.”
Commenting on the outcomes of the stakeholder consultation, Ms Peters said: “It is encouraging to have had such a high level of response from registrants and other stakeholders on the changes we’re making.”
She added: “We’ve used the extensive feedback we received to make changes to enhance the clarity of our standards and to make them easier to use and more proportionate.”
However, despite the GOC’s demonstrative show of its comprehensive consultation process – with a report stretching to 321 pages, including annotated comments from respondents – concerns have been raised that the standards may have been rushed through, with 43% of the 1,900 respondents not fully endorsing the revisions.
In its report, the GOC states that the majority of registrants which responded to its survey “felt they had the skills and ability to fulfil the proposed standards.” Yet many optical organisations perceived the revised standards “to be unfair and expected to be ineffective because businesses are not currently subject to standards.”
Further concerns were also raised by respondents around individual standards being “unachievable” because they were deemed to be “outside of the control of individual registrants or otherwise unrealistic.”
While the GOC has passed through the standards for practitioners and students ahead of legislative change for optical businesses, the regulator states that it will update the code of conduct for optical businesses.
“We are pushing hard for legislative change,” said Gareth Hadley, chair of the GOC. He added: “I call on colleagues across the sector to join the GOC in arguing with a loud, collective voice for the importance of regulating all businesses that carry out restricted functions, such as testing sight and supplying contact lenses.”
Mr Hadley voiced disappointment at the failure of the Professional Accountability Bill to progress through parliament, saying that the Bill was “unlikely to materialise in this parliament.”
The report highlights that FTP case examiners may need training in order to understand when to apply the new standards when assessing cases. It states that some FTP personnel were unsure as to whether the standards were minimum standards or best practice and that “this ambiguity could be problematic in judging cases.”
There were additional concerns raised that students may have problems in applying the changing standards at different stages of professional training, while a proportion of respondents stated that separate standards for students were not perceived to be needed. However, Mr Hadley stated that “We can see a clear journey and progression between standards for students and [newly qualified practitioners].”
Responding to the GOC’s changes, chairman of AOP’s Policy Committee, Trevor Warburton, said: “We feel that some of the standards could be more reflective of today’s practice. By leaving business registrants governed by the current code of conduct while imposing stricter duties on individuals, the GOC is not solving the current inequalities of obligation between individual registrants and business registrants.”
Mr Warburton added: “The GOC, the College of Optometrists and the AOP have all reported recently that practitioners are increasingly expressing concerns about commercial pressure, with regards to both throughput of patients and conversion rates. The AOP feels that registered businesses should operate under the same obligations as individuals.
He continued: “The GOC tell us that over 1,500 respondents to their survey were supportive of the standards, so presumably those practitioners are confident they can be responsible for equipment maintenance, record security and record accessibility even as an employee. The AOP’s legal team is less confident and is worried that the new standards will leave some members unable to meet some expectations.”
Head of policy and strategy at the Federation of (Ophthalmic and Dispensing) Opticians, Ann Blackmore, said: “We will of course want to examine these [revised standards] in detail but we welcome the fact that, following consultation, many of the sector's representations have been taken into account.”
Ms Blackmore told OT: "We do however remain concerned about the way in which some of the Francis [inquiry] recommendations have been included, particularly the duty of candour. Recommendations designed for cases of serious harm must be appropriately applied in community optics and we feel the GOC’s interpretation here may not get the balance right. Transparency and openness are important but good regulation shouldn’t create unnecessary financial burdens that harm practices without contributing to better patient care.”
She continued: “We also believe more could have been done to reduce duplication, which we think would have helped make the standards clearer and more accessible. Nevertheless, we now look forward to working with the regulator and sector partners to help implement the standards and develop further guidance where necessary.”
AOP chairman, Kevin Thompson, added: “We look forward to working closely with the GOC to make sure members understand their duties under the new standards.”