Neurologist Dr Michael Watt discharged patients 'feel abandoned'
Thousands of discharged patients who fear they were misdiagnosed or treated incorrectly by a suspended Belfast neurologist have been left "completely in the dark", an MLA has said.
The patients were not on Dr Michael Watt's active patient list and have not been included in Northern Ireland's biggest ever patient recall.
Eight weeks ago, health officials revealed they were contacting around 2,500 NHS patients and just over 110 private patients after a Royal College of Physicians report raised concerns about Dr Watt.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon MLA claimed large numbers of Dr Watt's discharged patients feel "abandoned" and accused the Department of Health of a "protracted silence" which she said was "not acceptable".
Ms Mallon said: "On an almost daily basis I am being contacted by very anxious patients who were under the care of Dr Watt. Some for many years who fear they may have been misdiagnosed, over diagnosed or wrongly prescribed and treated during that time.
"Yet over two months after the Department of Health announced the biggest recall of patients, this increasingly distressed group of neurology patients still have no idea what pathway is open to them.
"Everyone understands the department's priority to recall and reassess the patients on Dr Watt's active case load.
"But there is another group of patients at the heart of this and it is not acceptable that over eight weeks later, they continue to be left completely in the dark with no information from the department to reassure them.
"At the very least, the department must write out in the coming days to all of these patients to update them and advise them of the next steps."
One woman, whose elderly mother was treated by Dr Watt at the Ulster Independent Clinic and discharged, said her mother had since "rapidly deteriorated".
"My 72-year-old mum saw Dr Watt on December 16 at the Ulster Independent Clinic as she had difficulty balancing and was slurring her speech," she said.
"He told her that he knew from just looking at the way she walked she had ataxia.
"He said there was nothing much he could do for her, so she was discharged after her first appointment without any treatment. Over the next eight months my mum deteriorated, her balance got so bad she fell down the stairs in her own home, then she fell outside and cracked her head open.
"She moved to a fold and registered with a different doctor, who referred her to a local NHS hospital. The neurologist told her ataxia was just a group of symptoms, so she hadn't been fully diagnosed. We haven't found out yet what is wrong with her."
The woman said she rang the clinic's helpline after news of the patient recall broke, but was told only "patients under active review" were being recalled.
"We feel completely abandoned. Discharged patients seem to be forgotten," she said.
The Department of Health said: "The primary focus to date has been on those patients who were under the active care of Dr Watt. Plans are currently being developed to address patients who have been discharged to the care of their general practitioner and will be finalised shortly.
"Any patient who has concerns regarding their health should consult their GP in the first instance."
A spokesman for the Ulster Independent Clinic said it had been working with the Belfast Trust, Health and Social Care Board and the Department of Health closely on the matter.
"Consistent with the guidance from the department, we have prioritised identifying and contacting the 110 patients of Dr M Watt who were under active review, exclusively in his private practice at the Clinic. We have since scheduled appointments for all those patients who wished to avail of a further neurology consultation and we are currently working our way through the schedule of appointments.
"Given the high-profile nature of this issue, we have received calls from a number of Dr Watt’s patients who had previously been discharged to the care of their GP who are concerned about the implications of the review for them. We understand that plans are now being developed by the department to address such concerned patients and that these will be made public shortly.
"Ulster Independent Clinic patients can be assured that we will continue to keep this situation under regular and ongoing review. In the meantime, the advice remains that any such patients who have concerns regarding their health should consult their GP in the first instance.”
Hillsborough Private Clinic said fewer than five patients from Dr Watt's active list to date were recalled.
"Careful consideration is being given to patients who have been discharged by Dr Watt to the care of their GP," it said in a statement. "We have been working closely with the HSCB and PHA to ensure consistency in the recall arrangements."