Patient recall scandal being made worse by Stormont impasse: ex-health chief
Former official sceptical the 2,500 affected can be seen within 12 weeks
A former health chief has warned that the ongoing Stormont stalemate has left politicians unable to scrutinise a minister over the controversy surrounding a neurology consultant.
John Compton said events around the unprecedented recall of patients are a reminder that "we are all the poorer" for the absence of a functioning political system.
More than 2,500 patients of consultant neurologist Dr Michael Watt were subject to the largest ever patient recall in Northern Ireland amid concerns of misdiagnoses.
Some 200 additional clinics started reviewing patients last weekend and are due to continue for 12 weeks.
"The focus must now exclusively be on ensuring they are seen in as timely a manner as possible, and supported through the process. Even with the best of intentions, this cannot happen in less than 12 weeks," said Mr Compton, who retired as chief executive of Northern Ireland's Health and Social Care Board in 2014.
Private consultants are being paid for by the Belfast Trust to assist with the recall.
Mr Compton said that a process will be developed to "explain and understand what has happened".
"Many people will contribute to this process, Royal Colleges, RQIA, the Belfast Trust, the Department of Health - but above all, it will need to give voice to the people most personally affected," he added.
"The one absentee looks like it will be our political system, and this must be a concern to us all.
"Had the political system been in place a minister would have made a statement on the event, MLAs would have scrutinised him or her on our behalf, and the health committee would have questioned those involved.
"As time has passed we have all become used to 'no politics' and have to a greater or lesser extent lost interest in the political system. The events in the health service in this past week should remind us all we are the poorer for not having a functioning political system."
As the scandal emerged last week, other health crises erupted in England and the Republic.
UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised after it emerged that as many as 270 women may have died because of a major IT error that left 450,000 patients in England missing crucial breast screenings.
An independent inquiry has been ordered.
And in the Republic, Health Minister Simon Harris publicly apologised following the CervicalCheck scandal.
Hundreds of Irish women who had smear tests in 2011 were incorrectly reported as being clear. Issues surrounding the cancer screening programme were brought to the public's attention in a court case taken by Limerick mother-of-two Vicky Phelan over a missed abnormality in her smear test.
Mr Compton said it was "worth contrasting" the political response to the health scandals to what has "happened politically in Northern Ireland".
He added: "Jeremy Hunt, the minister, has been to the fore in exercising political leadership both in the House of Commons and the media." As thousands of medical cases are reviewed by the Belfast Health Trust, some former patients who back Dr Watt are today planning a protest over the decision to suspend the consultant.
Campaigners and supporters of Dr Watt are sending a letter to the trust, saying their lives have been put at risk by the decision to suspend him.
The group is expected to protest outside the Royal Victoria Hospital this afternoon.
The Facebook group, calling itself 'Voice in Support of Dr Michael Watt', says it was set up in response to the "relentless witch-hunt and trial by media".
"We are patients of Dr Watt's and trust in him implicitly," the group stated.
"We have not been given a voice and are calling on all who wish to, to show their support."
Meanwhile, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon called on the Belfast Trust to offer patients "greater support", including counselling services for neurology patients attending the recall clinic. The North Belfast MLA said: "I have been contacted by more than one patient over the last few days who have attended the recall clinic and had their world turned upside down by news of a possible wrong diagnosis.
"These patients were offered no counselling and no support after receiving such traumatic news.
"One patient told me they have been suffering anxiety attacks since.
"They felt they had no other option but to contact their GP for help and have been told they need to wait two weeks for an appointment. That is not acceptable. Recall patients are already highly distressed.
"To be told by a consultant that you are facing a possible misdiagnosis is devastating."
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Health Trust said: "We have nothing further to say."
Helpline numbers: Belfast Health Trust: 0800 980 1100. Ulster Independent Clinic: 028 9068 6511