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Independent inquiry announced after Dr Watt Belfast Trust patient recall

By Jonathan Bell

The Department of Health has announced an independent inquiry into the Belfast Trust's handling of complaints concerning Dr Michael Watt.

It has also extended a review into Belfast Trust outpatient services to cover all Northern Ireland's health trusts.

Last week the Belfast Trust announced a recall of 2,500 patients treated by neurologist Dr Watt - the biggest recall of its kind in Northern Ireland. It is holding special clinics over the coming weeks to see all patients concerned. Some are thought to be as young as 14.

Head of the Northern Ireland Department of Health Richard Pengelly, said given the seriousness of the case and the impact on patients it was "clear a rigorous review was required".

"The public needs to be assured that this issue has been properly and appropriately handled by the Trust, and that any lessons for the future are learned," he said.

The inquiry will review the process initiated by the Belfast Trust in December 2016, in relation to concerns raised about the clinical practice of Dr Michael Watt. The panel will also assess whether any complaints or concerns relating to Dr Watt prior to December 2016 should have provided grounds for earlier intervention.

The inquiry panel will be chaired by Brett Lockhart QC. The panel will also include a member with clinical leadership expertise.

Reviews are underway into the Belfast Trust's actions over the issue as well as a review of the doctors patients at two private clinics.

Dr Watt was suspended from duty by the Trust in June 2017 although he remains an employee.

On Thursday a protest was held in support of Dr Watt.

Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said: “The focus since last week has rightly been on establishing a robust patient recall process. That remains the first priority.

“However, it is clear that a rigorous review is also required – given the seriousness of the situation and the impact on patients.

“I am indebted to Mr Lockhart for agreeing to lead this inquiry panel and undertake this important work.”

The department has already commissioned the RQIA to undertake a review of governance of outpatient services in the Belfast Trust with a particular focus on neurology services.  This review will then be extended as part of its rolling programme of inspections to cover all five Northern Ireland Health Trusts.

The department has also asked the RQIA to commission a parallel piece of work to ensure that the records of all patients or former patients of Dr Watt who have died over the past ten years are subject to expert review.

Campaigner Rhonda O'Neill suffers the rare condition autonomic neuropathy which affects all her organs.

"It is difficult to diagnose and treat," she told the Belfast Telegraph at a protest outside the Royal Victoria Hospital in support of Dr Watt.

"But Dr Watt has been fantastic. He has tried wonderful treatments that have helped and made such a difference and now he has left I have to see a different neurologist."

Those behind the protest said they had been "inundated" with support and had a gathered over 300 signatures on a petition calling for his reinstatement.

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