Opportunities to intervene over concerns about a Belfast doctor’s practice were missed by a health trust as early as 2006. An inquiry into the largest ever recall of patients in NI has concluded that the Belfast Health Trust responsible for a neurologist failed to act despite a number of complaints about his work. Concerns about the practice of Dr Michael Watt were officially escalated from 2016.
The inquiry found had the concerns been raised earlier, it could have made a difference.
More than 5,000 patients in NI were recalled when it was found that Dr Michael Watt had misdiagnosed patients.
Among conditions being treated were stroke, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.
More than 4,000 of his former patients attended recall appointments. Almost a fifth of patients who attended recall appointments were found to have received an "insecure diagnosis.
Health Minister Robin Swann apologised unreservedly for the hurt caused.
A number of separate inquiries have been taking place into the work of Dr Watt, who formerly worked for Belfast Trust at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
An inquiry into the events leading up to the significant recall was set up in 2018. In its report published on Tuesday, the Independent Neurology Inquiry has found that there was a “failure to learn from complaints” about Dr Watt.
The inquiry, led by Brett Lockhart QC, examined whether there were complaints or concerns which should have alerted the Belfast Health Trust to instigate an earlier investigation.
It concluded that the trust could and should have intervened earlier but failed to do so.
It stated: “Time after time information was raised in a patient complaint which needed to be independently investigated. Consistently the answer given to the complainant was obtuse and unhelpful”. The inquiry also states: “The systems and processes in place to assure the public in respect of patient safety prior to November 2016 failed.” It was found that the full extent of the problems with Dr Michael Watt’s practice only began to come to light following a concern being raised with the Belfast Trust by a GP. The inquiry has also revealed that Dr Watt received a five-year warning from the General Medical Council, around 2006/2007, but this was not communicated to Dr Watt’s line managers in the health trust. It was found that Dr Watt dramatically increased his use of several medical techniques without consulting colleagues or analysing the cases appropriately. The inquiry has concluded that information between the private sector, where Dr Watt had a substantial practice, was not shared with the NHS Trust where he also worked. Since the recall of patients it has been discovered that about one in five of the patients had their diagnosis changed. Patients who have spoken publicly have expressed disappointment that Dr Watt did not give evidence to the independent inquiry in person as he was declared medically unfit to do so. Dr Michael Watt was removed from the medical register in 2021 after making a voluntary application to the GMC.
A hearing into his clinical work was held in private. The inquiry findings do state that the Belfast Health Trust did get “key decisions right after November 2016”. The Independent Neurology Inquiry has made 74 recommendations to improve communication within the health service in the future where complaints are raised about the work of individual doctors.
It is also recommending that the GMC works with other organisations to review existing processes for revalidating doctors.
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