Last August I submitted a complaint to the GPhC (the pharmacy professional regulator) about two homeopathic pharmacies. Both pharmacies were selling anti-vaccination books. The GPhC’s tagline on their website is “Upholding standards and public trust in pharmacy”, so I felt given the misleading nature of such information I ought to send in a complaint.
They have now made a decision not to refer the complaint to the investigating committee. They have instead issued advice to the two companies reminding them to adhere to the Professionals Standards set by the GPhC (bold emphasis my own):
4.3 Explain the options available to patients and the public, including the risks and benefits, to help them make informed decisions. Make sure the information you give is impartial, relevant and up to date
6.2 Not abuse your professional position or exploit the vulnerability or lack of knowledge of others
6.4 Be accurate and impartial when you teach and when you provide or publish information. Do not mislead or make claims that you have no evidence for or cannot justify
It has been interesting being a complainant to the GPhC, and I have had no complaints with the staff I have dealt with, who were professional in their approach to me.
My original complaint was that anti-vaccination books were being sold from registered pharmacies and that this was incompatible with being a member of the pharmacy profession (by breeching the Professional Standards 2012 – see above). I also argued that this put patients at risk by promoting anti-vaccination books.
This was the GPhC’s series of points that address my complaint.
The following are some brief partially formed thoughts.
The first argument that the books are “hidden” seems irrelevant. Virtually all websites require members of the public to navigate around the site to find items for sale. The argument that the books are therefore some form of hidden item, and that clicking through to them is some sort of explicit consent to be misinformed is an assumption. In any case, the professional standard that “Make sure the information you give is impartial, relevant and up to date“ doesn’t have a qualifier “except where you have hidden it behind the counter or off the front page of your website”. It also isn’t clear that the professional standards related to misleading or providing out of date information only applies to patients/customers. The same surely applies to the supply of information to other practitioners, and that should include even homeopathic practitioners.
That point also applies to the second bullet point. The fact that the customer profile of the books was homeopaths or customers with a clear interest in homeopathy does not absolve the pharmacies of their professional responsibility. If a patient decides to buy a drug that interacts with other medication which would cause harm, the pharmacist has the right and responsibility not to supply. The same applies here. There is a professional responsibility not to sell information to either homeopaths or customers that may cause harm to children (either through a parent’s decision not to vaccinate, or a homeopathic practitioners decision to advise patients on the basis of the information in these books). The buck stops (or rather doesn’t) in the pharmacy (see professional standards 4.3, 6.2, 6.4 for clear statements to that point).
The third bullet point, seems to be suggesting that the pharmacists’ professional responsibilities can be diluted by telling customers to seek independent medical advice. Really? Comment is made about training of staff members. One hopes they don’t use the books they sell as training material…
The fourth point, about not receiving a complaint. I am a member of the public. I have complained. Homeopaths aren’t going to complain. Do we have to demonstrate harm before drawing attention to poor practice? I have no doubt that dangerous professional practice found on a registered pharmacy related to the supply of prescribed medicine when a GPhC inspector visits would be dealt with on the basis of future risk to patients. Why is this any different?
Is the sale of misleading anti-scientific material about vaccination from a registered pharmacy “Upholding standards and public trust in pharmacy”? Put that starkly I suspect most would say no. Breaking this case down into constituent “trees”, the “wood” starts to dissolve. This needs to change.
The professional standards are clear: “Make sure the information you give is impartial, relevant and up to date.” There is no possible way that the sale of anti-vaccine books is compatible with this statement. If anyone can explain how it is in the comments, I would be most grateful.
When it comes to the professional responsibilities of pharmacies supplying anti-vaccination books, the buck should stop here. Sadly, in this case, the books are staying there instead.