In Take 5 this month, Dispensing Optics editor Nicky Collinson sits down with Dr Anne Wright CBE, chair of the General Optical Council.
Dr Wright joined the GOC in February 2021 from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, where she was a member and lay chair. With a strong regulatory background, Dr Wright has also been chair of the National Lottery Commission, and was a member of the Bar Standards Board from 2012 to 2017.
Her career in higher education led to her appointment as the vice chancellor of the University of Sunderland from 1990 to 1998. She was awarded the CBE in 1997 for services to higher education. Dr Wright’s other non-executive roles have included the School Teachers Review Body and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
NC: What appealed to you about becoming chair of the GOC?
AW: As the regulator of optometrists and dispensing opticians, the GOC has an important role to play in protecting the public by maintaining high standards in the optical professions. I am delighted to contribute to that mission as chair of the council, especially at this crucial time for eyecare. We are currently engaged in a range of exciting and transformative projects, from the recently approved new education and training requirements and the forthcoming new continuing professional development model, to the recent Speaking Up guidance consultation.
I’m also joining the organisation as it looks towards the second year of its Fit for the Future strategic plan for 2020-25. As part of our strategy, we remain committed to reviewing and updating our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) processes to ensure we are inclusive for all. We will be consulting on our gender reassignment policy and processes later this year, and will be engaging with registrants to gain a better understanding of the EDI impacts on the optical sector. I look forward to helping drive this forward and ensuring we achieve our vision of being recognised for delivering world-class regulation and excellent customer service.
NC: What do you think makes for a good regulator?
AW: At the heart of good regulation is the ability to promote and protect the health, safety and well-being of patients, service users and other members of the public and maintain public confidence in the professions. We have four core regulatory functions to help us do that. They are: setting standards for optical education and training, performance and conduct; approving qualifications leading to registration as a dispensing optician or optometrist; maintaining a register of individuals who are qualified and fit to practise, train or carry on business; and investigating and acting where a registrant’s fitness to practise, train or carry on business is impaired.
Our values underpin the way we work with each other, and with the public, our registrants and other organisations. In delivering our regulatory work, we strive to act with integrity, pursue excellence, respect other people and ideas, show empathy, behave fairly and be agile and responsive to change. The latter has been crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic.
NC: What would you like to achieve over the next four years? What will success for the GOC look like?
AW: Over the next four years, I will be working closely with my fellow council members and the senior management team at the GOC to achieve our strategic objectives of delivering world-class regulatory practice, transforming customer service and building a culture of continuous improvement.
In aspiring to be world-class regulator, we will aim to be rated highly by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and meet all their standards – but will not let this get in the way of trying new and innovative approaches to regulation.
Public confidence in the professions we regulate is already strong, as has been shown in our annual public perceptions survey, and we expect this to be maintained if we are to uphold high standards. By protecting the public, we are also protecting the reputation of the optical professions. We will also look to retain the confidence of the optical professions and we will measure this through an annual registrant survey and regular stakeholder survey. Our registrant survey is open until 12 April and we encourage all our registrants to take part. We also expect customer satisfaction with the GOC to increase when we deliver on our customer engagement strategy, with an emphasis on patients, the public and registrants.
NC: What are the three biggest challenges facing the GOC?
AW: As with all regulators, Covid-19 has affected the way we regulate and deliver our strategic objectives and we have had to remain agile and responsive to the ongoing challenges. During the pandemic, we published statements to remove any unnecessary regulatory barriers and to reassure our registrants and the sector that we will support them when they act in good conscience and exercise professional judgement for the public benefit. We recently consulted on the content and impact of our Covid-19 statements and whether there are further areas of GOC regulations, legislation or guidance that need to change or be put in place to ensure more effective regulation in the future. We have published an independent report by Enventure Research ,and we are currently considering our response.
We would like to improve our communication with complainants, witnesses, providers and registrants in order to promote a more positive, rounded perception of the GOC. We know, for example, there is a lot of work we need to do to dispel some of the myths around our fitness to practise (FtP) function. Whilst most registrants will never have any involvement with us, we are aware that there is fear of receiving a notification from us.
To alleviate this fear and help registrants better understand the process, last year we introduced FtP Focus, a learning bulletin for registrants. The first bulletin focused on triage, the first stage of the process. We will publish the bulletin quarterly, with each edition focusing on a different stage of the process. The first bulletin was positively received, and we are excited to share the next one shortly, which provides insight into the investigation stage.
Lastly, we have challenging and ambitious strategic projects to deliver, including the implementation of our new education and training requirements. The new requirements mark the most fundamental change for over 35 years in the way optometrists and dispensing opticians are prepared for entry to our register, and will give greater assurance that our requirements are being met and risks are being managed, therefore continuing patient and public confidence in our ability to maintain and monitor high standards.
NC: What do you think will be the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on working practices?
AW: The growth in online and remote provision of services will certainly be one of the long-term impacts, and we will need to consider our own regulatory approaches, including the standards and guidance we provide in light of these changes. Currently, we have a statement on remote contact lens aftercare and a joint regulatory statement on remote care and prescribing. We may also need to consider our approach to providing customer service for our registrants. We will also take into consideration the responses to our Covid-19 consultation in relation to the long-term impacts of the pandemic. As we move towards a ‘new normal’, we will ensure that we continue to protect the public in everything we do.