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Unprecedented patient recall following probe into neurologist's work

Dr Mark Mitchelson said the Belfast trust had taken "active steps" to ensure complaints were dealt with as soon as they emerged. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanín Graham

THE biggest ever patient recall in the Belfast health trust is under way after a high-level probe into a consultant neurologist found "safety concerns" around his care.

A total of 2,500 letters were sent out yesterday to former patients of Dr Michael Watt, who was based in the Belfast health trust, following a year-long independent investigation by the Royal College of Physicians.

Almost 50 cases were reviewed by medical experts in London who "confirmed patient safety concerns" around his treatment and diagnosis.

Dr Watt, who has worked in neurology for 20 years and was said to be "very well liked", saw patients from across the north with a wide range of brain-related conditions including multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, stroke and Parkinson's disease.

While the trust "restricted" Dr Watt from seeing patients last June, he remains an employee of the organisation.

He was based in the Royal Victoria Hospital but also saw private patients at the Ulster Independent Clinic and Hillsborough Clinic.

The Irish News yesterday revealed the massive recall and how senior staff were drafted in last weekend to set up a dedicated helpline in what one medic described as a "extraordinary logistical task".

Trust chiefs yesterday confirmed that 200 extra clinics will operate at nights and over weekends over the next 12 weeks to allow consultants to carry out face-to-face review appointments for those affected.

It also emerged last night that a separate helpline has been set up by the Ulster Independent Clinic and will be operational from this morning.

Concerns about the Belfast neurologist's work were first raised two years ago by a Belfast GP.

In December 2016, a small number of Dr Watt's colleagues in the Belfast trust - there are a total of 10 neurologists - contacted trust management with concerns.

An internal review was ordered and the findings "justified" some of the complaints.

The trust then commissioned the Royal College of Physicians to carry out an expert review in late December.

While the vast majority of patients seen by Dr Watt were adults, a small number were under the age of 16, with one as young as 14.

Some of the letters are understood to relate to cases dating back seven years.

In briefings yesterday, senior trust doctors refused to be drawn on what specific conditions had sparked the probes as they said they had a "duty of care to protect patients".

A spokeswoman stressed last night it is "not aware of any patients who have come to any significant harm" but it thought it "prudent and wise" to order the extensive recall.

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Dr Mark Mitchelson, who is responsible for neurosciences at the trust, told The Irish News they had taken "active steps" to ensure the complaints were dealt with as soon as they emerged.

He acknowledged the situation was "very serious" and appealed to patients to contact them who had fears about their diagnosis or treatment but had not received a recall letter.

Dr Watt had 3,200 patients on his books. Of that total, 600 were reviewed last year and are not part of the recall.

"This is a situation where we are asking patients to phone the helpline if they are worried. We want to actively push patients to do this," Dr Mitchelson said.

The medic said the trust appreciated the "significant anxiety" caused and apologised on behalf of the trust.

"The recall of such a large number of patients is so that we can be confident and thorough in ensuring that patients are having the best possible care," he said.

"...Again, we are truly sorry for the anxiety this will cause."

Dr Mitchelson described Dr Watt has someone who had been "very popular" with his patients.

"He was really very well liked and tried to do his best but performance can dip... and we need to put the safety of patients first."

Dr John Craig, a senior consultant neurologist in Belfast, said he was also keen to reassure waiting list patients - neurology delays for consultant appointments can be up to four years - that they will not be affected by the recall.

Meanwhile, North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon yesterday said she was aware of affected patients in her constituency who felt they had been left in "limbo".

"I have lobbied the Belfast trust about this matter since last December due to the fear and distress caused to a number of Dr Watt's patients in Belfast.

"They are fearful now they have been misdiagnosed for years and given the wrong drugs. It is an appalling situation."

HELPLINE NUMBERS

Belfast Trust: 0800 980 1100

Ulster Independent Clinic: 02890 686511

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