The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) was only established in 2010, but a current Department of Health (DH) consultation – Promoting professionalism, reforming regulation – suggests that the GPhC’s days may be numbered.

The consultation paper informs us that there are approximately 1.5 million people registered to practise in healthcare professions in the UK. But, it says, the system of regulation is “a historical patchwork”, carried out by nine statutory regulators.

The DH says that “regulation of healthcare professionals must change in order to protect patients, to support the transformation of UK healthcare services and to meet future challenges”.

At the moment, the nine healthcare regulators have different powers, which can result in different sanctions for similar professional failings. The DH insists that there is “no clear rationale” for retaining all nine separate bodies. What is more, the cost of regulation varies widely from one regulator to another. The DH wants to reduce the number of bodies to three or four ‘super-regulators’ that would govern a group of professions.

Is pharmacy a special case?

The DH says that efficiencies begin to accrue when a regulator has a registrant base of between 100,000 and 200,000. The GPhC has just over 89,000 registrants in England, Wales and Scotland, while the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which is the smallest regulator in the UK, has 2,852 registrants. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out the implications for the GPhC and PSNI.

Pharmacy is the only area of healthcare that is not regulated by a single UK body, so it may not be possible to avoid a merger of the GPhC and the PSNI. However, there are some good reasons for keeping pharmacy regulation separate from the bodies that regulate other healthcare professions:

  • The powers of some healthcare regulators may be out of date – this doesn’t apply to the GPhC which, as one of the newest, has more modern powers.
  • The breadth of pharmacy activity among community pharmacy, the hospital sector and the pharmaceutical industry may not blend naturally with other healthcare professions.
  • Pharmacy is unique among healthcare professions in having a statutory inspectorate with statutory powers, and almost unique in having premises that are registered.
  • The legislation governing pharmacy practice is also very different to the laws governing other healthcare professions. The Medicines Act and the Human Medicines Regulations create a raft of criminal offences that apply only to pharmacy practice.

The consultation is open until January 23, 2018. But a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ regulator is likely to lack the expertise to govern a profession with pharmacy’s special features.