Northern Ireland news

Dr Michael Watt: Neurologist at centre of Northern Ireland's biggest patient recall has left his job

Consultant neurologist Dr Michael Watt is no longer working for the Belfast trust, where he was restricted from seeing patients in June 2017
Seanín Graham

THE doctor at the centre of Northern Ireland's biggest patient recall has left his job.

Consultant neurologist Dr Michael Watt is "no longer an employee of the Belfast trust", the organisation has confirmed.

The news comes a year after The Irish News revealed the medic made an application to retire on medical grounds.

While "restrictions" were placed on Dr Watt in the summer of 2017, which prevented him from seeing patients, he continued to be a fully-paid trust employee.

Trust officials refused to say when exactly the consultant's employment ceased or how his contract ended, citing data protection.

Read More: Independent probe into neurology scandal at 'critical stage' as 30,000 new pages of evidence supplied 

Patients have raised concerns about whether his departure could impact on a major investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC).

The medic was suspended from practising as a doctor in the UK last January by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) after his case was referred by the GMC.

Dr Watt was based at the Royal Victoria Hospital for 20 years. He also saw thousands of private patients at the Ulster Independent Clinic and Hillborough Clinic.

"Safety concerns" about his work sparked an unprecedented recall in May 2018, when almost 3,000 patients were reassessed due to fears they may have been misdiagnosed or given the wrong drug treatments.

It emerged that one in five of those recalled were given an unreliable or "unsecure" diagnosis, while there was "uncertainty" in relation to a further 300 cases.

Multiple Sclerosis patients as well as people suffering from Parkinson's, stroke and Motor Neurone Disease were among those affected.

When asked by The Irish News about his position, a trust spokesman said: "We are unable to comment any further than to confirm that Dr Michael Watt is no longer a Belfast Trust employee."

A Stormont minister who lobbied on behalf of dozens of patients criticised transparency around the case.

SDLP North Belfast assembly member Nichola Mallon said she had been unaware that Dr Watt had left the Belfast trust.

"For the patients, the news that Dr Watt has left the trust will come as a shock and cause great hurt to them. Once again they've been kept in the dark and they're finding out key pieces of information via journalists that are trying to get the truth," the infrastructure minister said.

"This has been a hallmark of this entire situation where patients haven't been given information despite multiple requests from me when I was representing them that they were kept updated and informed.

"Time and time again they learn of distressing pieces of information via the media. There's been no learning from this whatsoever.

"The people who are at the heart of this are the patients and they are the group who are continually overlooked when it comes to trust communications."

Patient Danielle O'Neill (37) said her life "fell apart" after undergoing an invasive procedure known as an epidural blood patch and then being wrongly prescribed a cocktail of epileptic drugs.

The north Belfast woman also criticised a lack of communication.

"I feel like we have been forgotten about," she said.

"It comes as a major surprise that Dr Watt has left - but my feeling is that Belfast trust has once again failed those patients who had an unsecure diagnosis, who were mismanaged and went gone through unnecessary procedures. Their communication with these patients has been zero."

A GMC spokeswoman told The Irish News it could not comment on indivdual cases but added: "A doctor's decision to retire or leave their place of employment is separate to the GMC's processes and does not mean an investigation would come to an end."

However, when asked if medic's ill health could impact on the continuation of a probe, she said: 'We have a duty to take health concerns into consideration but it would be inappropriate to comment on specific cases'.

The GMC investigation remains ongoing but has been "impacted" by the pandemic.

The Irish News has learned the regulator wrote to patients last week informing them the Covid-19 outbreak has caused "significant delays to both investigations and hearings alike".

"In the meantime, please be assured that Dr Watt remains suspended which means he isn’t able to work as a doctor," the correspondence said.

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