Northern Ireland news

Dr Michael Watt case had ‘drastic effect' on trust in medical regulation, MLAs told

Michael Watt was a consultant neurologist
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A decision to allow neurologist Dr Michael Watt, at the centre of Northern Ireland’s largest ever patient recall, to voluntarily leave the medical register has had a “drastic effect” on trust and confidence in regulation, MLAs have been told.

Charlie Massey, chief executive of the General Medical Council (GMC), also told the Stormont health committee that there was no prospect of success for a legal challenge into the voluntary removal of Dr Michael Watt from the medical register.

Mr Massey said that he understood patients would feel disappointment and anger that the action was taken before a hearing could be carried out into Dr Watt’s actions.

A number of separate inquiries are taking place into the work of Dr Watt after thousands of his patients were recalled in 2018 amid concerns about misdiagnosis of brain conditions.

Last month the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) announced it had convened in private and granted an application by Dr Watt, who formerly worked at the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, to be removed from the medical register.

This means that he can no longer practise medicine in the UK.

A GMC hearing into Dr Watt had been expected to take place this month but could not proceed after he was removed from the register.

Mr Massey told the committee: “I want to start by acknowledging the disappointment and anger that I know was felt by so many patients as a result of the decision by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service to grant voluntary erasure to Michael Watt.

“We in the GMC were also extremely disappointed by that decision. It was not the decision we wanted and we completely emphasise with the patients who felt let down.

“That hearing took place in private, but the QC who was representing the GMC argued very strongly that the public interest meant the case should proceed to a hearing.”

He added: “When I saw that decision I immediately sought external legal advice on whether that was a decision that we would be able to overturn. That legal advice established that we have no formal statutory appeal right.

“The only route available to us would have been through a judicial review process. But the threshold is set very high. The legal advice told me we had no realistic chance of succeeding.

“I very reluctantly was forced to conclude we would have no chance of succeeding and therefore decided not to proceed with the judicial review.

“I would like to say to patients I am very sorry we are left in this position. It is not the outcome we wanted.”

Committee chairman Colm Gildernew said: “It is very disappointing that course of action was allowed to be taken. I am deeply conscious of the impact this has had. Many feel let down by the system.”

Anthony Omo, from the GMC, said: “We did consider the judicial review carefully. It is the first time in the GMC’s history that we have considered judicially reviewing one of our committee’s decisions.

“The advice, it was that we had no chance of overturning it.”

Ulster Unionist Alan Chambers asked if the GMC officials agreed that this case has undermined public confidence in the body’s ability to hold clinicians to account.

Mr Massey said: “I completely recognise, and it is one of the things that makes me very anxious, is that this case and the decision that the MPTS took has had drastic effect on trust and confidence in regulation in Northern Ireland.

“I genuinely feel very distressed on behalf of those patients who feel they have been left unable to get answers to what happened in terms of the deficiencies in clinical performance and why their lives have been changed so terribly.”

The committee agreed to write to the MPTS to call on them give evidence.

An independent neurology inquiry was established in 2018 amid concerns about Dr Watt’s work. It was given the status of a public inquiry in 2020.

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