Vision Express has been give a three-year warning in a disciplinary hearing involving seven cases of dispensing opticians who were not registered or who were registered as students and one of an unsupervised student optometrist.
Last week's fitness to practise case saw VE admit to the eight allegations in a case sparked by an anonymous complaint to the GOC on July 15 2010 about the status of Mehmood Jagani who had been working as a DO while not GOC registered. When this was followed up by the GOC, VE responded on March 15 2011 to this query and provided details of six other employees it had found to have practised beyond their registration or practised as a professional when they were not registered with the GOC. The letter also detailed a separate investigation into a VE employee Savina Patel who, as a student optometerist, was alleged to have carried out unsupervised sight tests.
VE investigated Jagani, who worked from September 23 2009 and October 29 2009 as a DO without a written contract. He was given the role of a retail associate when it was identified that he did not have a GOC number. VE stated that he did not fit contact lenses during his employment, but he dispensed optical appliances to patients aged under 16 and it is possible he dispensed optical appliances to blind or partially sighted patients when he was not under supervision as he was believed to be a GOC-registered DO. He was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct by VE after a disciplinary hearing on September 22 2010.
The company added that a broader investigation identified three areas that required immediate improvement - lack of appropriate checks, a lack of knowledge at management level of regulatory requirements and reliance on the probity of individual staff members. It said it was taking steps on a nationwide scale to remedy any weaknesses in its systems.
In carrying out its review it found six other staff members (Anna Sergeant, Mark Heinz, Akshay Patel, Deena Ataie, Mohammed Sheikh and Sarah Ferrer) who had been using the DO title when unregistered or registered as student DOs, and that thorough investigations and formal disciplinary action had or would be taken.
The committee concluded that the admitted facts amounted to a serious breach of the statutory and regulatory responsibilities for business registrants. 'It is a fundamental requirement for any registered corporate body seeking to provide optical services that they employ qualified staff in accordance with the Opticians Act 1989 (as amended) and that they are also registered with the appropriate regulatory body Vision Express, by its own admission, failed to meet the statutory and regulatory responsibilities in eight branches of its nationwide network. As Mr Bradly submitted on behalf of the Council, the requirement to monitor compliance is both a fundamental one and is basic in the sense that it should be achievable without difficulty.'
Finding VE guilty of misconduct, the committee noted that it had been open and honest with the GOC, that the admitted facts were largely based on VE's own investigation and it had put in place various remedial steps to minimise the risk of regulatory breaches. It had a new policy on sale and supply of spectacles with a signature sheet for each member of staff and a professional services policy had been created for use in stores. It was also trialling a PIN scheme for restricted dispensing and a tag scheme attached to frames used in restricted dispensing that could only be removed by a registrant.
The committee added that it had borne in mind the failures identified in the main took place in 2010 or earlier. While it said the concerns raised by the case did not reach the threshold for impairment, the committee believed they were sufficiently serious to require a formal response and concluded that a warning was appropriate, while noting VE had shown insight into its failings.
'There have been eight admitted incidents out of a nationwide network involving 386 stores and some 4,500 employees. There has also been a genuine expression of apology and there has been no repetition of the behaviour complained of since.'
It added that appropriate steps had been taken and the three-year warning was to ensure that VE remained focused on the undertakings it had given.