GOC responds to OPG petition

The General Optical Council has addressed a number of concerns raised in a petition by the Ophthalmic Practitioners Group

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The General Optical Council (GOC) has published a response acknowledging a petition put together by the Ophthalmic Practitioners Group (OPG).

The petition calls for a suspension to the routine examination of asymptomatic patients, and also calls for the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) to investigate a number of allegations put forward by the group.

Concerns raised in the petition relate to guidance delivered during the pandemic, allegations of stakeholder input in guidance, and the “unnecessary strain” of the continuation of the Education Strategic Review through the pandemic. As of the time of writing, the petition has been signed by over 550 people.

Addressing the petition, the GOC recognised the “challenging times” facing registrants working on the front line.

The regulator explained that determining whether healthcare settings should remain open during the pandemic is the role of national governments, working with commissioning bodies and health authorities. The regulator added: “The role of the GOC is to ensure that registrants are taking account of this guidance to protect patients, but we do not set the clinical parameters for the guidance and we do not set national government policy in relation to how care is delivered.”

The Government has stated that routine primary health care services should remain open during the lockdown where safe to do so. Optical practices can remain open to deliver eye care on a needs and symptoms-led basis, prioritising emergency and essential care and only providing routine appointments “if capacity permits, and if it is in the patients’ best interests.

Optometrists have shared complex and conflicting fears around the impact of the lockdown restrictions on practices and patients, as well as the safety of practicing.

In its statement responding to the petition, the GOC suggested the profession is now at a different level of preparedness than the first lockdown in spring 2020, “With infection control procedures in place, changes to clinical practice now embedded and lateral flow tests and PPE readily available.”

The role of setting clinical guidance sits with the NHS and sector bodies such as the College of Optometrists, the regulator noted, adding: “We work closely with these organisations to ensure that our registrants are receiving consistent information and taking account of the guidance to protect patients.”

The GOC outlined a “shared expectation” that care is delivered in a safe environment for patients and registrants, and that registrants, including businesses, follow guidance, as well as applying professional judgement in certain contexts, emphasising: “We will act where this is not the case.”

The regulator also addressed concerns raised in the petition around the formation and content of some of the COVID-19 statements.

The COVID-19 statements were set out by the GOC to support registrants to deliver care effectively in the context of the pandemic.

The GOC commented: “These include proportionate relaxation of regulatory requirements in the public interest, clarification of some areas of our legislation where there has been misunderstanding and enabling the use of remote practice where this can be done safely.”

In its statement, the GOC highlighted that during the pandemic, healthcare regulators have needed to act quickly “and take urgent decisions” to ensure care could continue safely, adding, “We consulted with a range of organisations and stakeholders to get a consensus approach to changes to our advice and guidance in our COVID-19 statements.”

The GOC also said it had worked with the College of Optometrists and Association of British Dispensing Opticians to provide a consistent message on the application of the COVID-19 statement during the pandemic. In the recent consultation on the COVID-19 statements, which closed on 7 January, the GOC set out its consideration for aligning this guidance with the College framework.

“All of our COVID-19 statements were consulted on with the majority of stakeholder representative bodies in the sector and separately signed off by our Council based on this feedback,” the regulator shared.

The petition also alleged that the decision to continue with the Education Strategic Review (ESR) placed “unnecessary strain” on stakeholders and that the GOC is acting “outside of its remit to secure funding for educational establishments” as part of the review.

In response, the GOC shared: “We needed to consult during the pandemic to ensure that our current requirements do not become out of date and that the qualifications we approve in the future are fit for purpose.”

The regulator has said that the ESR would ensure the qualifications approved are responsive to the “rapidly changing landscape in the commissioning of eye care services in each of the devolved nations,” as well as to the changing needs of patients and changes in higher education, “not least as a result of COVID-19 pandemic.”

The GOC added that the consultation was also important to ensure changes made to qualifications align with the changes to pre-registration competence requirements as part of the Continuing Education and Training Review.

The regulator clarified: “It is important to note that we do not have a role in funding or commissioning of services.

“We are, however, keen to work with stakeholders to explore ways to secure additional funding for optical education and training. This includes working with all UK governments and Health Education England, the Departments for Education, Health and Social Care.”

Acknowledging the petition’s call to the PSA to investigate the allegations, the optical regulator confirmed it would provide information on the matter as required, and encouraged those with concerns to get in touch with the GOC.

Last summer the PSA found no grounds for a special investigation into the GOC, in response to a petition that had called for a review for an alleged conflict of interest. The authority said it would continue to monitor and report on the GOC’s performance through its annual review process.