2,500 patients recalled: I first raised concerns about Belfast Royal Victoria doctor Watt seven years ago
Health official's story of her own illness contradicts trust on timeline of events
A senior health official has revealed she raised concerns with the Belfast Health Trust about Dr Michael Watt as far back as 2011 — at least five years before the trust said it had received complaints about him.
The trust claimed a probe into Dr Watt’s work followed concerns raised by doctors in December 2016. However, it can be revealed that at least one formal complaint was made seven years ago.
Melissa McCullough, who is a non-executive director for the Health and Social Care Board NI, claimed Dr Watt incorrectly diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis (MS) instead of neurological Lyme disease in 2010.
The subsequent delay and inappropriate treatment received, she alleges, made her condition much worse at the time.
She lodged a formal complaint with the Belfast Health Trust in 2011 and said she was concerned that many patients have had a similar misdiagnosis.
She also published an academic paper about her experience in the British Medical Journal Quality and Safety journal in 2012.
Thousands of Dr Watt’s patients have been recalled over concerns about the diagnosis and treatment provided by the senior consultant.
Neurology patients with complex, debilitating and life-altering conditions ranging from MS and Parkinson’s disease to motor neurone disease are at the centre of the case review.
Letters were issued to 2,500 patients, including a teenager as young as 14.
It’s understood some cases could date back as far as 20 years ago when Dr Watt first joined the trust.
Ms McCullough said: “It was so frustrating, I felt he wasn’t listening to me when there was something terribly wrong. He diagnosed me with MS, but I had a late stage of neurological Lyme disease, which can be life-threatening at that late stage.
“It was actually my sister who figured it out. She’s a GP in the US, and after hospitalisation from the massive dose of steroids Dr Watt prescribed, she became aware of my symptoms and called my own GP, Dr Peter MacSorley in Belfast, who took the right steps.
“If it weren’t for his compassionate care and competency, I honestly don’t know if I would have survived it.”
She added: “Most shocking, as I vividly remember, is when I was very sick in the hospital and I finally saw him (Dr Watt) two days after being admitted.
“I asked him: ‘Are you sure you’ve got this right? This medicine has made me 100 times worse’.
“And he looked at me rather shocked that I’d questioned him on it, and said: ‘Yes, I am sure. You are having a steroid psychosis from the medication. There’s people who would pay a lot of money for this feeling’.”
Ms McCullough said she felt the comment showed his professionalism was “completely lacking”. She added: “I was assured that lessons would be learned after my complaint was investigated, but perhaps they weren’t learned quick enough, which is very upsetting to me and countless other patients as it now seems.”
Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph visited Dr Watt’s large detached home near Hillsborough.
Three cars were parked outside the property, which includes a tennis court. However, a female voice told this newspaper via the intercom that Dr Watt was “not here”.
When asked whether comment would be provided through a solicitor acting on his behalf, she replied: “Thank you, no.”
Some of the concerns raised by doctors about Dr Watt were about potential misdiagnosis, treatment plans and the examination of patients. An independent review of patient notes carried out by the Royal College of Physicians raised concerns about Dr Watt’s diagnosis of a “small number of his patients”.
A separate review was also carried out by the trust.
The large-scale recall could have devastating consequences for some patients. Dr Watt, who also had a private practice in Hillsborough, has not been seeing patients since last June.
Dr Mark Mitchelson, medical chair of the division for neuroscience at the Belfast Health Trust, apologised to the thousands of patients and their families.
“We were first made aware of concerns in December 2016 and from that point we have been taking active steps to ensure patients’ safety,” he said.
“Initially the concerns were about a very small area of practice and we instigated steps to restrict Dr Watt from seeing certain patients groups and undertaking certain procedures.
“Additionally he has been on a full restriction from clinical practice from the summer of 2017, but he’s still a trust employee.
“That decision was taken by the medical director Kathy Jack but at all times those decisions are supported by discussion with local regulatory bodies.
“We understand that this is an incredibly anxious time for patients, their families, but because concerns were raised we feel the right thing to do is review all of Dr Watt’s current patients.
“We’ve undertaken to see them all within a 12-week period and they have all been contacted by letter.”
Dr Watt saw patients with a wide range of complex neurological conditions including MS, epilepsy, stroke, headaches and Parkinson’s.
Nine neurologists in the Belfast Trust will now be running 200 additional clinics to cater for the patient reviews, starting this weekend. The trust has drafted in help from the private sector to deal with the 2,500 recalled patients as quickly as possible.
Dr Mitchelson said that no patients in the healthcare system will have their care “disadvantaged or delayed” as a result.
He said none of the nine neurologists will be taken out of their day-to-day roles.
The trust said it has been liaising with the General Medical Council and a review will be undertaken by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority.
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Trust added: “We understand that Dr Watt had a private practice and that he has not been seeing private patients since June 2017.
“Belfast Trust has kept the private providers informed of this situation. Whilst a private patient can ring our advice line with any concerns they may have, we would encourage them to contact their private healthcare provider.”
An advice line has been set up. The number is 0800 980 1100 and lines will be open weekdays from 9am to 9pm and weekends from 9am to 5pm