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We have let patients down, admits senior Northern Ireland civil servant

By Michael McHugh

A senior Northern Ireland civil servant has apologised after hundreds of neurology patients were recalled for further testing.

An independent inquiry has been launched following a probe into the work of a consultant neurologist in Belfast.

It followed the year-long examination by the Royal College of Physicians of patient notes relating to the work of Dr Michael Watt.

The permanent secretary at Stormont's health department, Richard Pengelly, said the health and social care services "apologised unreservedly" after standards of care fell short.

"This issue has undoubtedly caused a great deal of distress to patients and their loved ones.

"On behalf of the entire health and social care system I want to apologise unreservedly for that - the reality is that we all feel diminished when the high standards the public demands of our service are not met."

Neurology involves treating brain conditions including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's.

The recall of 2,500 people by Belfast Health Trust has raised concerns about potential misdiagnosis.

Mr Pengelly added: "In recent weeks and months, prompted by other events, there has rightly been a focus on whether our service is sufficiently open and transparent, the extent to which we take responsibility for our mistakes and, more importantly, learn from them.

"I want the public to be in no doubt that we are sincere in our efforts to learn from past, and more recent, events. The standard of care provided has fallen short of the one we have set, and indeed the standard the public have the right to expect."

He assured the public that health authorities and the independent sector were working hard on a number of fronts to address this rapidly.

"I do want to emphasise that that will be an open and robust process, and anything less than complete co-operation from all parts of the system will simply not be acceptable."

Sinn Fein health spokesman Pat Sheehan welcomed the public apology. The West Belfast MLA said: "It is an extremely stressful and worrying time for many of these patients and it is important this is recognised and addressed.

"The priority, of course, is that every patient is seen as soon as possible within the 12 weeks timeframe of the recall and those requiring further treatment or care receive it as a matter of urgency.

"It is also vital the Belfast Trust communicate clearly and regularly with the affected patients to address the stress and worry many will be feeling at this time."

Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw MLA has said that while the apology is welcome, more communication and action is needed. "I have spoken to many healthcare personnel over the last couple of weeks and I feel Mr Pengelly's comments today very much reflect their personal sentiments," said the South Belfast MLA.

Terri Mercer, a former patient of Dr Watt who has set up a Facebook group supporting the doctor, said that she acknowledged the apology.

"However, we would also like a public apology to Dr Watt for the distress and damage to his reputation and for him to be reinstated as soon as possible," she said.

"Our members would like to know why Dr Watt's name was released by the trust and his patients stopped from seeing him with no explanation."

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