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Sorting fact from fiction

The General Optical Council’s head of case progression, Keith Watts, unravels some common myths about professional conduct proceedings

09 Nov 2018 by Selina Powell

What are some common misconceptions that practitioners have about fitness to practise (FTP) cases? Can you explain why these assumptions are flawed?

The biggest misconception we hear is that the General Optical Council (GOC) strikes practitioners off its register for minor things and that a good practitioner will be struck off for making a single clinical mistake. This is not the case. All decisions are of course at the discretion of the independent fitness to practise committee, but only a very small number of registrants (five, in 2017–18) are erased from the GOC register each year.

Practitioners may also be concerned that they will be prevented from practising while an investigation is conducted. In 2017–18, the GOC opened 262 fitness to practise investigations and applied for an interim order (to suspend or restrict a registrant’s work while an investigation is conducted) in only 19 cases. Of these applications, 16 resulted in an interim order being imposed but only five were orders suspending the practitioner’s registration with the GOC.

We would also like to reassure practitioners that the investigation process is a neutral process. Its purpose is to gather information that is relevant to the referral/complaint that has been received so that case examiners – one registrant and one lay person – can make a fully-informed decision as to whether to close the case or refer the registrant to the fitness to practise committee. In 2017–18, case examiners closed 74% of the cases they considered.

“A GOC sanction will only be imposed if it is necessary to protect the public and/or maintain public confidence in the optical professions. Most complaints result in no sanction at all and, even where one is applied, the majority are less serious than striking off”

What is the broad function of the FTP process and how does it fit into the role of the GOC overall?

The purpose of the FTP process is to protect the public and maintain public confidence in the professions, not to punish registrants. This fits with our overarching objective to protect the public, which is the role given to us by Parliament.

A GOC sanction will only be imposed if it is necessary to protect the public and/or maintain public confidence in the optical professions. Most complaints result in no sanction at all and, even where one is applied, the majority are less serious than striking off. For example, a period of suspension or conditions of practice may be imposed.

What are the most common forms of misconduct that result in an FTP case?

We receive complaints about a wide variety of things, but those that result in an FTP hearing more commonly relate to criminal convictions, personal conduct, multiple clinical errors/omissions, clinical error that is aggravated by personal conduct, and serious health concerns.

What lessons can practitioners learn on how to avoid an FTP complaint from the most frequent matters to appear before the GOC? 

  • Ensure you are familiar with our Standards of Practice. You have to do at least one piece of CET per cycle that covers the Standards, but you can do more if you feel you need to boost your knowledge of what is expected of you as a professional
  • Be honest, particularly with the GOC. If you are subject to a complaint then be open and honest about what went wrong and how you will learn from it to improve your future practice or conduct. There have been numerous occasions when practitioners dishonestly covering things up has been considered more serious by FTP panels than the original error or conduct. This has included cases where practitioners have made false declarations when applying to retain their place on the GOC register. For example, not declaring criminal convictions/cautions when required to do so. Please do therefore read the retention application form and the declarations guidance very carefully and seek advice from your professional body or the GOC if you are unsure whether you need to declare something
  • Remember that you are a professional and have your own professional obligations under the Standards of Practice. If someone tries to force you to go against your professional judgement, you must challenge them. Take advice from your professional body if necessary.

“Only around a quarter of complaints get as far as an FTP hearing. Three quarters are resolved before that point”

What is the process from when a complaint is first received and how does the GOC decide whether to proceed to a hearing? 

On receiving a complaint we must firstly decide whether to open an investigation, which may include making some preliminary enquiries. If we open an investigation we will then gather evidence. This is then provided to the registrant for them to make written representations in response. If there is a complainant, they are permitted an opportunity to respond to the registrant’s representations. After this, two case examiners – one registrant and one lay person – will consider whether to refer the case to the FTP committee for a hearing. If referred, that hearing will usually then be held in public.

Full details are available on our website

We have recently produced a virtual tour of our hearing rooms so that registrants and witnesses can see in advance what a hearing looks like.

What proportion of FTP cases will proceed to a hearing? How else might an FTP matter be resolved?

Only around a quarter of complaints get as far as an FTP hearing. Three quarters are resolved before that point, generally, either with no further action or with a case examiner warning. This warning is not made public or disclosed to employers. Sometimes when no further action is taken, case examiners will provide informal advice to the registrant to support their future practice or conduct.

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