THE Belfast Trust (BHSCT) is dealing with 231 litigation cases relating to the treatment which the suspended neurologist, Dr Michael Watt, provided to his patients, The Detail can reveal.
It was also confirmed to us that the trust has not yet settled any of these types of cases.
Of 2,952 patients assessed as part of the BHSCT neurology patient recall, which was published in December 2019 by the Department of Health (DoH), over 20 per cent were misdiagnosed.
The recall report also found a further 329 patients received ‘uncertain’ diagnoses.
One of Dr Watt’s former patients, Lyndsay Eccleston, said she thinks the figure of 231 litigation cases against the BHSCT “seems low”.
Ms Eccleston told The Detail: “I haven’t gone forward with a case because of the difficulty that I’ve had in getting information, such as medical records, from the trust.
“On top of that, I’ve been very ill. It is extremely difficult to take a case when you’re so sick.”
Ms Eccleston added that many of the families affected by Dr Watt’s treatment, who she is in contact with, are having similar problems and are “more concerned with looking after their sick loved ones” than taking legal action.
In February 2020, it was reported that the first compensation case, relating to Dr Watt’s behaviour, had been paid out. It was settled outside of court, by private indemnity providers, and without an admission of liability.
However, this individual was seen privately by Dr Watt and the case did not form part of the BHSCT neurology patient recall.
In May 2018, the DoH announced it was planning to set up a compensation scheme which some former patients of Dr Watt could be eligible for.
However, over two years later, The Detail can reveal that Health Minister Robin Swann has not yet signed off on this.
A DoH spokesperson said: "The work to develop how a streamlined clinical negligence process would operate in practice has yet to be completed in light of the need to redeploy resources in response to Covid-19.
"The details of the proposed approach will be submitted to the minister in due course."
The BHSCT also confirmed that the 231 litigation cases being taken against it are not connected to the DoH’s proposed scheme.
Additionally, The Detail can reveal that the General Medical Council (GMC) believes it has “sufficient evidence” to progress its primary case relating to Dr Watt’s clinical skills “in order to protect future patients”.
A GMC spokesperson said: “This has been a deeply distressing and vulnerable time for many patients and families. Our sympathy goes out to those affected and we know how difficult it has been for those awaiting answers.”
The GMC aims to conclude all of its investigations within 12 months but it has already spent more than two years investigating concerns about Dr Watt.
In April 2018, a final version of a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), which raised concerns about Dr Watt's work, was sent to the BHSCT.
This report has never been made public. The Detail asked the RCP if it had any objections to the report being made public, but none were raised.
However, an RCP spokesperson said that a report, once issued, belongs to the trust which commissioned it “so it is for them to decide how best to disseminate information to the relevant stakeholders and what action to take based on the conclusions”.
The Detail requested for the BHSCT to provide a statement explaining why the RCP report had never been released publicly.
A trust spokesperson referenced both the GMC investigation and the ongoing Independent Neurology Inquiry, adding: “It would therefore not be appropriate to release this report at this time.”
Just after the May 2018 RCP report was sent to the BHSCT, Richard Pengelly, the Permanent Secretary of the DoH, established the Independent Neurology Inquiry. The inquiry is headed up by Brett Lockhart QC.
The Detail previously reported that, by December 2019, the inquiry panel had met on 102 occasions and heard from 171 witnesses.
As well as establishing this inquiry the DoH also commissioned the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to review the records of all of Dr Watt’s deceased former patients who died in the previous 10 years.
However, family members of those who died outside of this period were initially informed that if they approached the RQIA, then their loved one's medical records would also be looked into as part of the review.
In January 2020, The Detail reported that 20 months after this review was commissioned by the DoH, the RQIA could not confirm the number of cases it was examining as part of it.
We later reported, in June 2020, the concerns of Colin Armstrong – whose mother, Ruth, was a patient of Dr Watt’s until her death in November 2002 – that the official cessation of the RQIA review, due to Covid-19, represented its moving “from a shallow grave to a deeper one”.
Correspondence, seen by The Detail, sent by PSNI Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy to one of Dr Watt's former patients, dated January 13, 2020, states the RQIA review is important in "considering to what, if any extent, did the practices of Dr Watt impact on the deaths of some of his patients".