The Health and Social Care Act 2008 came into force on 21 July 2008. Although it mainly deals with the establishment of the Care Quality Commission in England and Wales, it also covers the regulation of health professionals. It establishes a new separate adjudicator for GMC fitness to practice hearings, the Office of Health Professions Adjudicator (OHPA) and introduces ”responsible officers” who will work for healthcare providers.
The OHPA is expected to take up its power in 2011. The GMC's existing adjudicating function will transfer to it whilst the GMC will continue to set professional standards and initiate cases where those standards are not being met. The division of the GMC and its adjudicating function is a direct response to the call for adjudication functions to be exercised independently from both the GMC and the Government as the dominant provider of healthcare in the UK.
The Act provides that a network of responsible officers must be appointed within the NHS who will have personal responsibility for evaluating the conduct and performance of doctors and make recommendations on their fitness to practise. It is thought that these will be senior doctors. Medical directors will probably gain this responsibility.
The Government is currently consulting on secondary legislation which should outline the precise responsibilities of the officers. The BMA has responded to the consultation and backs medical directors gaining this responsibility whilst also stating that ”for the role to continue to be attractive it must contain within it wider pastoral and developmental responsibilities so that the officer has the function of assisting poorly performing doctors not merely identifying and reporting them”.
The precise nature of the responsible officer's role will not be known until the secondary legislation is enacted. Foremost of all the questions for the Government to answer is what is meant by “personal” responsibility in the context of these officers. As employees, medical directors have responsibilities arising out of their employment and as doctors they have professional responsibilities but personal responsibility suggests an altogether different burden.