Belfast Telegraph

Health officials considering compensation scheme for NI neurology recall patients

By Victoria Leonard

Health officials are considering a "redress scheme" which could provide compensation to victims of the neurology patients recall.

More than 3,200 patients in the health service and private sector have been affected so far, it emerged yesterday.

However, Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly warned that any compensation scheme would require ministerial sign-off, leaving it unclear as to how this would function in light of the current Stormont impasse.

He said: "We recognise that throughout the recall process some patients will have their diagnosis changed or their treatment regime changed.

"We're dealing with potentially some very significant issues here. These could have profound implications for patients, so at this stage I'm commissioning some work within the Department just to look at a redress scheme.

"Ultimately that will require consideration and sign-off by ministers, but I think it's important that we start that work now and start thinking about that.

"We will be developing options, a range of possibilities for a scheme. It will be an issue for ministers to determine. The one thing I want to emphasise is we are learning the lessons of mistakes made in the past.

"Our response will not be, if somebody comes forward and says, 'I've had a profound life-changing event as a consequence of an error on your part', our response will not be to refer them to our solicitors and say, 'See you in court'.

"We want to move past that and actually admit mistakes, acknowledge them and deal with the implications of that for patients."

During a briefing with Mr Pengelly and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride at the Department of Health yesterday, it also emerged that:

l The Belfast Trust has secured just over 2,800 additional appointment slots over the 12-week recall period, and has 1,960 patients booked in for review appointments.

l 2,529 HSC patients and around 700 private patients are affected.

l 281 patients have already been seen, and "a couple of hundred" have yet to make contact.

l An independent inquiry panel chaired by Brett Lockhart QC and featuring medical expert Dr Hugo Mascie-Taylor is to examine the handling of the recall process.

l The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) will conduct a review to examine the records of all patients or former patients of Dr Watt who have died over the past 10 years.

l Another RQIA review will look at the governance of outpatient clinics in the Belfast Trust, with a particular focus on neurology services.

Mr Pengelly described the recall as "one of the most complex and challenging that as a system we've had to deal with." Of the 281 patients already seen, Mr Pengelly said they were "still collating" information on how many had their diagnosis changed.

He revealed that he and Dr McBride had received assurances from the Hillsborough Private Clinic and Ulster Independent Clinic that they would recall Dr Watt's patients within a 12-week period, matching the timescale of the health service recall.

The department has pledged to "intervene" if the private providers contact them to advise that they are encountering difficulties in fulfilling that commitment.

Mr Pengelly added that he didn't have information on how many children are involved in the recall.

During the briefing, it emerged that Mr Lockhart wants to create "a mechanism where patients and their families will be able to present evidence to him" as part of the independent review.

Regarding the RQIA review into Dr Watt's deceased patients, Mr Pengelly said that the 10-year period "is not a hard and fast cut-off", and the health service had been contacted by an individual whose family member passed away "11 or 12 years ago".

Dr McBride said that the health service was "absolutely not forgetting" about patients of Dr Watt who had been discharged, but that "people on an active list subject to care and treatment will be of greater clinical priority". He added that the health service had a "duty of care to Michael Watt" and that the report by the Royal College of Physicians into the consultant's work, which sparked the patient recall, could not be released as it "would breach due process".

However, Dr McBride acknowledged there was "a huge level of understandable anxiety".

He said: "The psychological and emotional impact of all of those people who are being recalled, irrespective of whether there's a change of diagnosis or not, is likely to be very, very significant." He added that the processes in place "are as good as they can be" and are the same as in the rest of the UK.

"We have to ask ourselves the question, 'now that this has happened, are there gaps in those (processes)?'" he said.

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon welcomed the potential redress scheme, but said there are "still many unanswered questions".

"It is still not clear how the Ulster Independent Clinic and Hillsborough Private Clinic will manage their recall within the 12-week timeframe set down by the department," she said.

"From the meeting today, it seems that this may fall to the Belfast Trust, which is already stretched.

"There are also questions about the plan for reassuring and supporting the thousands of patients not recalled but who were under the care of Dr Watt, in some cases for a number of years.

"There are serious questions about workload and workforce planning within our neurology services."

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