Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3) August 2017


Regulating the Conscience of Pharmacists

John Fisher WindowDespite a very large response, indeed the largest response to a consultation ever received, involving over 3,450 on-line responses and 151 postal and email responses from individuals and organisations, the General Pharmaceutical Council has changed its standards in favour of a person-centered approach. In the consultation documents this clearly ran the danger that the best interests of patients will be determined by what the patient wants.

The standards state that pharmacy professionals must “take responsibility for ensuring that person-centered care is not compromised because of personal values and beliefs.” The Council goes on to state that “Person-centered care is delivered when pharmacy professionals understand what is important to the individual and then adapt the care to meet their needs – making the care of the person their first priority.” Hence, care must be adapted to what the patient wants. This appeared to remove the rights of conscientious objection. This was a serious development which in effect would mean that right and wrong would be defined subjectively in terms of the person’s wishes. Pharmacists, as servants of the public must do what they are told and, if necessary, act against their conscience.

The Pharmaceutical Council was very surprised by the size of the response and appears to have used diversity monitoring data (collection of which is a legal requirement) as part of the analysis of the responses to the consultation. They then in effect dismissed the majority of respondents on the grounds that they represent lay people and in particular lay people of faith. Ironically, when the new standards favoured a person-centred approach, the majority of the public were against the changes, in relation to conscience and belief, whilst the majority of pharmacy professionals approved of the changes.

The good news is that in June, in publishing the revised explanatory guidance, the Council moved a long way back towards recognising that professional judgement and ethical practice are central to what pharmacists do. It is felt that the work put in by those who objected to the original proposals has paid off. There is also more emphasis on employers adopting a reasonable approach in accommodating the views of their employees and avoiding discrimination on grounds of conscience and belief. We hope and pray that this improvement in the understanding of the ethical standards of pharmacists will continue.