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Annual appraisals of Dr Michael Watt not carried out prior to alarm being raised

Concerns have been raised about why annual appraisals of consultant neurologist Dr Michael Watt were missed
Seanín Graham

BELFAST health trust did not carry out annual appraisals on Dr Michael Watt in the two years before the alarm was raised about his work.

The Irish News has learned that assessments of the neurologist's performance in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were not 'completed' until late 2017 - five months after he was stopped from seeing patients.

The annual checks were introduced across the UK in 2012 as part of a monitoring system to restore confidence following high-profile scandals including that of killer GP Harold Shipman.

Overseen by the General Medical Council, this process is a mechanism to identify "any concerns regarding the conduct, health or performance of doctors".

Last month a probe into the work of Dr Watt, a consultant based in the Royal Victoria Hospital for the past 20 years, identified "safety concerns" and sparked a recall of more than 2,500 NHS and private patients.

Official complaints about the senior neurologist were first made to the trust in December 2016 by a Belfast GP.

Dr Watt was stopped from seeing patients last June. He was not suspended and remains on full on pay.

Belfast trust chiefs have now confirmed that while he did undergo an appraisal by his employers in 2014, it was for the previous year's work.

A spokeswoman added: "An appraisal for the activity completed during the calendar years 2014, 2015 and 2016 was completed in November 2017."

Responding to queries from The Irish News, the trust said it "would be important to highlight" that any concerns regarding the "conduct, health or performance of doctors are managed as they arise, and are not dependent upon an appraisal meeting for either their identification or management".

"The trust has already explained the actions it took when concerns were identified in relation to Dr Watt during December 2016 and the actions it took then and subsequently.

"The trust understands that the independent QC-led Inquiry Panel will consider whether any complaints or concerns relating to Dr Watt prior to December 2016 should have provided grounds for earlier intervention."

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan said he was privately informed "at the highest level" about "serious concerns" around the 'missing' appraisal years.

He said their absence came at a critical period and questioned why it took until late 2017 to examine the previous three-year period.

"The annual appraisal is the main oversight system in place to hold doctors to account about their fitness to practice. It is a vital part of medical governance," he said.

Mr Sheehan said he is also concerned that "in the past few weeks there has been very little flow in terms of information" about the recall.

"There needs to be maximum transparency as to why these appraisals were not carried out annually."

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