In Focus: Making top-down improvements

Lucy Patchett reports key findings & failings of GOC’s Stakeholder Perceptions report

Areas where the General Optical Council (GOC) could improve were identified in its Stakeholders Perception report 2022.

While over two thirds (69%) felt the frequency the GOC communicates with them was ‘about right’, some viewed its responsiveness to communication as a weakness while others raised concerns over limited input from patients and the public. The GOC highlighted that it has appointed a new head of communications and a head of strategy, policy and standards, set to join in early 2023, to keep ahead of political, social and other developments.

The GOC said it would review its communication strategy, ensuring communication and consultation activities are being prioritised and planned effectively, and embed a process for the involvement of public, patients’ and patient organisations’ engagement in the GOC’s work. Recently, it met with several patient organisations in relation to its call for evidence on the Opticians Act, and plans to carry out further patient research over the next few months.

The report was collated from 30 in-depth interviews with professional bodies, patient groups, large companies, training organisations and government representatives, as well as a survey of 147 UK GOC business registrants, conducted in April and May 2022. A total of 89% of survey respondents were from independent practices, 4% from national chains, 4% from regional chains and 2% from domiciliary care services.

Regulatory concerns

The survey revealed discontent over regulatory practices, from the fitness to practise process to oversight of trade competition posed by the online market. Business registrants said the top business challenges have been from competition from online suppliers of spectacles and contact lenses (73%), staff recruitment (56%), recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic (48%), financial stability (48%) and attracting new patients (37%).

Despite a strong culture of continuous improvement and fair standards, 48% were not confident in the way the GOC regulated optical professionals and businesses and under half (42%) felt world-class regulatory practices were delivered. When asked what one thing the GOC could do to improve the way it regulated optical businesses, 31% said to regulate online sales and 18% said to regulate all businesses and ensure they were registered. While limitations to regulating online sellers were the factor, some still emphasised something needed to be done.

Anonymised comments from survey respondents were included in the report, such as: ‘There needs to be more of a handle of online sales, like contact lenses and online spectacles, that you sometimes see through Amazon marketplace. That is the duty of the GOC. It is a difficult one because these are overseas companies that are selling stuff into the UK, but even still, with contact lenses there is a lot of danger of infection and things like that.’

Another regulatory concern was around safeguarding technology and new business models, with 27% naming staying up-to-date with technological advancements as a main business challenge. Criticisms indicated that advancements, such as contact lens technology, auto-refraction, online consultations and telehealth, were already a reality but the GOC lagged in providing regulations. Professional bodies commented: ‘With regards to artificial intelligence, they need to be on the front foot and ensure that they have a clear position on how that is used to deliver eye healthcare. We need to ensure we close any loopholes, so that people can make sure they operate in the right way.’

Stability returns

A level of stability had returned to the GOC senior management, according to stakeholders, as the body recovered from impacts from changing senior staff over the past few years, which caused inconsistent decision-making and communication. A large employer said: ‘There was one stage, about two years ago, where it literally felt like musical chairs in terms of people coming and going. There was no structure that you could feel confident with to move the profession forward, whereas now it does feel more stable.’

However, stakeholders suggested that GOC staff would benefit from spending time in high street practices and hospital settings, observing how registrants work in order to gain a deeper understanding.

The GOC has since responded with actions to improve this: ‘There is value in GOC staff having the opportunity to visit registrants working in clinical practice to broaden their understanding of optometry and dispensing optics. The GOC will introduce and embed a process for new staff as part of their induction, as well as existing GOC staff, and lay council and advisory panel members.’