Review of neurologist’s deceased patients to be published

Colin Armstrong, holding a photograph of his mother, Ruth, a former patient of Dr Watt.

Colin Armstrong, holding a photograph of his mother, Ruth, a former patient of Dr Watt.

A report into the records of a small portion of Michael Watt’s deceased former patients is set to be published next month, The Detail can confirm.

This report is a review of the records of 45 of the former Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT) neurologist's deceased former patients’ cases. Reports on each individual case are also set to be made available to families at that time.

However, there has been a continued failure by health authorities to commit to review the estimated thousands of Michael Watt’s additional deceased patients’ cases – despite this being commissioned by the Department of Health (DoH) four years ago.

In May 2018, the former Permanent Secretary of the DoH, Richard Pengelly, instructed the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to conduct the review of the medical records of all of Michael Watt’s former patients who died in the 10 previous years.

Family members of his patients, who died outside of this period, were subsequently informed their loved ones' medical records would also be looked into as part of the review if they wished.

Four years after Mr Pengelly commissioned this review, no findings have been published.

While the assessment of 45 of the deceased patients' medical records is underway and findings from these cases are set to be published, the RQIA previously estimated there were more than 3,500 deceased individuals whose records should be reviewed.

The findings due next month, therefore, represent a review of only a tiny minority of Michael Watt’s deceased patients’ cases which the RQIA was originally commissioned to assess.

By contrast, thousands of former living patients of the former neurologist had their cases reviewed in a far shorter timeframe – with a report published in less than two years.

However, the DoH has maintained there are robust oversight arrangements in place for the review – referencing its steering group, clinical advisory group and ethical advisory group, as well as family engagement and support services.

The RQIA also maintained its family liaison team has kept families updated on “anticipated timescales” and responded to their queries, and that “support and counselling” is available to families.

“Shame and a disgrace”

Phase one of the deceased patient review involved preparatory work and was funded through the RQIA’s usual budget.

However, the DoH confirmed it has so far provided £277,000 to the RQIA for phase two of the review – the assessment of 45 deceased individuals’ cases.

The RQIA has failed to confirm if it will review records of the estimated thousands of deceased patients of Michael Watt whose cases have not been assessed.

Colin Armstrong's mother, Ruth Armstrong, was a patient of Michael Watt prior to her death in November 2002 when she was 78.

Her case is part of the review, into 45 patients, set to be published next month.

Mr Armstrong told The Detail: “After four years there is nothing to show for this review other than some administrative documents and minutes of meetings. It is a shame and a disgrace.”

The RQIA said the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), which is analysing deceased patients’ records on its behalf, is “currently preparing a report of its findings for each of the two groups included within phase two...the 29 deceased patients whose families had made contact with RQIA following the announcement of the review and the 16 patients who were included in the BHSCT’s cohort one live recall, but unfortunately died before either attending or completing their reassessment".

However in May 2018, when Mr Pengelly announced this review of Michael Watt's deceased patients, there was no qualification made that the onus should be on family members to ensure their loved one's records would be assessed by the RQIA other than in cases in which the death occurred outside of the ten-year-period prior to May 2018.

In addition, while the DoH said it understands the “frustration felt by the families involved”, it called the review “very complex in nature” and added that officials need to take “all the time necessary to consider issues, so that it is comprehensive”.

“Failed commitments”

Colin Armstrong feels he’s been consistently let down with broken promises. He said: “I was told in June 2018 that the review was expected to start in September that year. That commitment made to me was broken.

“For over a year, from 2019 to 2020, I heard nothing from the RQIA. I was told on May 26 last year that a report on my mother's records would be available late in the summer of 2021, this didn't happen.

“I was told later that year that the report would not be available until April 2022. All of these now represent broken commitments.

“Being informed recently that the report will not be out before the middle of May simply represents the latest in a long line of failed commitments.”

Like the RQIA, the DoH has also failed to confirm whether the review of Michael Watt’s deceased patients’ records will continue after this current phase concludes.

A department spokesperson told The Detail it will “give careful consideration to the future of this work following the conclusion of phase two (and) will consider the findings, and lessons learned, to inform decisions regarding next steps”.

Meanwhile, the RQIA told The Detail it will ”take direction from the DoH on its plans for future phases” of the review of Michael Watt’s deceased patients’ records and that the review will be shared with the department to consider the “findings and lessons learned, (and) to inform its decisions on the next steps”.

However, the organisation maintained it’s “fully independent in respect of the exercise of its functions including its reviews, both those independently initiated and those commissioned (by the DoH)”.

In addition, the DoH has failed to guarantee that it will provide any future funding for the next steps of the review.

The DoH said: “In accordance with best practice, all material factors will be taken into consideration when determining next steps for the deceased patients’ review.

“This will include taking account of the expectations of the families of deceased patients and the optimal deployment of limited resource.”

Mr Armstrong said: “This review should be fully funded by now. It was announced four years ago.”

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