The Professional Standards Authority’s (PSA) said it had seen ‘no evidence’ that regulators should not use online hearings ‘as a major part of their approach’ to address the challenges posed by the pandemic in updated guidance for regulators.
It said that concerns had been raised around the registrants' privacy, the ability of panels to assess evidence, and the technical stability of platforms for conducting virtual hearings.
However, the PSA insisted that there have been ‘no serious concerns’ about hearings held virtually so far, and highlighted that some regulators have been using video link evidence for ‘many years’.
The organisation has advised regulators to ‘assess the concerns in each case’ and address registrants’ worries with ‘flexibility, sensitivity, and co-operation’.
During the pandemic regulators continued to hold some hearings via video link, particularly where there was an urgent public interest. But the PSA explained that limiting activity to urgent cases only would ‘not be sustainable in the longer term’ - leading to ‘backlogs of cases’ and ‘delay [to] necessary action’.
The organisation said that it welcomed decisions announced by regulators in various sectors to increase activity in ‘the next few weeks’ - noting that some had already started.
The GMC restarted its fitness to practise proceedings in July following a pause at the start of the UK coronavirus pandemic.
The PSA guidance outlined the stance health regulators should take around virtual hearings during the pandemic. It said: ‘Suggestions were made to us that the registrant’s consent should be required before a hearing is heard virtually. This does not seem appropriate.
‘We are unaware of similar proceedings where one party has a veto over the type of hearing and, unless the courts determine otherwise, we do not consider that this would be right in these hearings.
‘However, it is essential that the registrant should be consulted about the mode of hearing and their reasoned views be given careful consideration and appropriate weight.’
The guidance states that both virtual and physical hearings ‘involve different risks’, so regulators should consider whether a case is most suitable to be heard physically, virtually or as a hybrid.
It adds that regulators should consider the registrant’s ‘access and ability’ to use technology when deciding how to hold a hearing.
Commenting on the updated guidance, MDDUS chief executive Chris Kenny, said: ‘The COVID-19 outbreak placed our healthcare system and clinicians under strain, and as the country takes new steps to mitigate the current spike in infections, they may face these same pressures once again.
‘The publication of the General Medical Council’s guidance on the handling of COVID-19 specific complaints, which aims to ensure that any such complaints are considered fairly, is an example to be followed.
‘We would encourage all healthcare regulators to take a similar approach, in a way which ensures consistency in messaging across all healthcare professions.’
GMC guidance for staff investigating complaints against doctors was updated this month to fit the 'extraordinary circumstances' of the COVID-19 pandemic.