Families of Dr Watt patients call for criminal investigation into disgraced neurologist treatment

There have been calls for a criminal investigation into the work of a former neurology consultant following the publication of a damning report which found "significant failures" in his treatment and care of some patients.

Dr Watt, a former Belfast Health and Social Care Trust consultant neurologist, was at the centre of Northern Ireland's largest ever recall of patients, which began in 2018, after concerns were raised about his clinical work.

More than 4,000 of his former patients attended recall appointments.

A review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority examined the clinical records of 44 deceased patients who had been under the care of the the former Belfast Health and Social Care Trust consultant neurologist.

Health authorities have apologised following the report's publication and police have said they are considering the findings to consider next steps.

On Tuesday, families of the former neurologist's patients held a demonstration outside the RQIA's offices in Belfast.

Amanda Scott, whose daughter Zoe was a patient of Dr Watt and died at the age of 30, was among those to attend.

"For four years and eight months, he did nothing," she said. "He gave her no treatment that was effective and he never did a brain scan.

"Her personality completely changed. She was a nurse, she went to university and in those four years, eight months it was obvious that my daughter was sick. And he did absolutely nothing.

"By the time her wee brain disease was found, it was too late."

Patricia Grogan's mother Maureen was also a patient of Dr Watt and died aged 73.

"For us, we were hoping we would get answers but unfortunately we haven't," Patricia said.

"Its been a terrible journey of emotion, of guilt, of hope that we would get something out of this. But I think actually what we've got is more questions."

Dr Michael Watt.

The RQIA commissioned the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to undertake the review in August 2020 at the direction of the Department of Health.

The panel highlighted concerns over clinical decision-making, diagnostic approach, communications with other clinicians, as well as poor communication with patients and with families.

Among conditions being treated were stroke, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.

The key findings from the review include:

  • There was a lack of empathy and often a failure to consider patients’ needs holistically.

  • There were concern over the assessment and initial management of patients; aspects of clinical decision-making; diagnostic approach; prescribing; the communications and engagement with other clinicians; and interactions with patients.

  • The review team identified concerns or omissions and their potential to lead to harm in almost half of the cases examined, including that some of the treatments prescribed were unnecessary and invasive.

  • In several instances, the review team believed patients had been denied holistic, supportive care that may have made their condition, and ultimately end of life care, easier to manage.

  • In almost half the cases reviewed the team did not consider the diagnosis to have been secure.

  • While in most cases, the review team did not identify any concerns with the recorded cause of death, they stated that in several instances the review of death certification, or referral to a medical examiner or coroner, was recommended.

  • The review team concluded that more than half of cases were graded “poor care” or “very poor care” in terms of initial management of the patient, and that clinical decision making was “poor” or “very poor”.

  • They found that more than half of cases reviewed there was “poor care” or “very poor care” in terms of communication with colleagues, and that there was little evidence that multidisciplinary team input into complex cases was sought.

RQIA's chair, Christine Collins, commended the courage and openness of all those families who came forward to engage in this review.

"Family accounts starkly illustrate how failings by an individual practitioner, and by the system, led to deep human impacts and resulting harm, both to the deceased patients and to their bereaved families," she said.

"While this process has been difficult and may not have produced the outcome sought by some families, RQIA sincerely thanks every family for their patience, their personal commitment and the invaluable contribution they have made on behalf of their loved ones."

RQIA's chief executive, Briege Donaghy, added: "Our staff, have been deeply moved through our involvement with the bereaved families.

"We are determined that the actions we take, driven by the findings from this review, will improve clinical practice, the safety of services and the experience of patients and of families."

A statement from the Department of Health said the findings of the RQIA review would inform their next steps.

It added: "All material factors will be taken into consideration for any future phases of this work.

"This will include taking account of the lessons learned, addressing expectations of the families of deceased patients, and making best use of limited health care resources."

The Belfast Trust also apologised.

A spokesperson said: "Belfast Trust is wholly and unreservedly sorry to everyone who has been affected by the neurology recalls since May 2018. Our thoughts today are with the families of those patients who have sadly passed away."

A PSNI spokesperson said it was considering the findings of the various reviews and investigations into Dr Watt's work.

"We will continue to liaise with the RQIA, Department of Health and Public Prosecution Service and will consider all relevant material before determining whether or not it will be necessary to conduct a formal investigation," a statement added.

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