Viewpoint: Why health regulation needs to modernise - care minister Helen Whately

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need for simpler and more flexible professional regulation in healthcare, says care minister Helen Whately. Writing for GPonline, she spells out the case for change and urges GPs to take part in a government consultation.

Care minister Helen Whately
Care minister Helen Whately

Over the last year healthcare professionals have shown unprecedented fortitude and dedication in caring for their patients.

The pandemic has shone a light on the need to be able to scale up and adapt the healthcare workforce. Professional regulators did a brilliant job setting up emergency registers at a moment’s notice and thousands of former staff re-joined to help health and social care services respond to the new threat.

Yet this response required emergency legislation and policy making in close to real time. If we face a similar situation again; we could make it easier for everyone – and we can make our system and professional regulation work better in normal times too.

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In March my department, the DHSC, launched a consultation to reform the regulation of health and care professionals in the UK: Regulating Health Professionals, Protecting the Public.

The need for reform has long been acknowledged and our consultation aims to provide greater protection and accountability for patients and the public, and better support our incredible and hardworking staff.

The proposals set out last month build on recommendations from the UK Law Commissions and a 2017 UK government consultation, which found the current model for regulating healthcare professionals is too rigid and complex. No more has this been the case than during this pandemic.

To make sure we implement both the existing recommendations and the lessons of the pandemic, we are acting now to make much needed changes.

Public protection

The reforms will modernise each of the healthcare professional regulators’ legal frameworks, making them simpler and more consistent. This will enable regulators to provide public protection more efficiently and spend more time supporting the professional standards of all registrants.

For example, there is considerable variation in the fitness to practise powers currently available to the regulators. Our proposed changes will provide a consistent regulatory framework for fitness to practise across all the regulators and will allow more cases to be resolved without the need for lengthy hearings. This will enable complaints to be resolved more quickly and, where necessary, delivering measures to protect the public sooner.

We will also replace overly prescriptive legislation with more flexible powers. This includes introducing emergency registration powers for all regulators so they can better respond to unexpected workforce challenges, such as the ongoing pandemic, without the need for further legislation which had to be brought in during the first wave. At the moment, the GMC and the General Pharmaceutical Council have these powers; we plan to introduce them for all regulators of health professionals.

Following this consultation, we will also take the next step to bring physician associates (PAs) and anaesthesia associates (AAs) into regulation. PAs and AAs already play a key role in a range of healthcare settings, providing vital support to the medical team. Regulating these roles will increase the contribution they can make, while keeping patients safe.

Partnership approach

The proposals have been developed in partnership with and have the backing of the professional regulatory bodies and the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care. Increased flexibility will be balanced by greater accountability, which will ensure regulators operate in partnership with each other and as part of the wider healthcare system, with public safety at the heart of everything that they do.

As part of a wider programme of reform, our Health and Care Bill white paper sets out plans to enable changes to the regulation of healthcare professionals through secondary legislation. This includes the power to remove or add a profession from regulation, and extend the ability for regulators to delegate functions. The use of these powers will be informed by an independent review to ensure that the professions protected in law are the right ones and that the level of regulatory oversight is proportionate to the risks to the public.

Together, these measures will help deliver a more flexible, agile and modernised professional regulation system which better supports both staff and patients, as well as bringing two important new professions into regulation.

I urge health and care staff and organisations to have their say in this consultation, which closes on 16 June, to help shape our proposals and ensure we deliver the best possible standards of professional regulation.

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