More cases of misdiagnosis in Northern Ireland

Published: April 26 2021
Last updated: September 28 2022

About one-fifth of patients recalled by the Belfast Trust in Northern Ireland, as part of a second group, have needed a change in diagnosis and treatment, a review published on 20 April has shown.

Around 2,500 patients treated by Dr Michael Watt were recalled in May 2018 after concerns were raised by other doctors about his treatment plans and diagnoses.

A second group of 1,044 people, treated by Dr Watt between 2012 and 2017, was recalled for review in October 2018. This group of patients had either been discharged back into the care of their GPs, or had been discharged and then referred back to neurology services by their GPs. It includes people prescribed epilepsy medicines.

The recall intended to review whether these people had been given a correct diagnosis and whether their treatment and care plans were appropriate. The review found that out of 927 patients, 181 (19.5%) did not have a ‘secure diagnosis’ and review clinicians were ‘uncertain’ about the diagnosis of a further 44 people (just under 5%).

While a ‘not secure’ diagnosis did not automatically mean misdiagnosis, the majority of people in this category received a new diagnosis. Also, for the majority, the original prescribed treatment was not deemed appropriate.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann made a statement to the assembly to deliver the findings. He made an apology to the people affected by the situation, adding: “I know that many [people] will have had their confidence in our health service shaken and I remain committed to helping to restore it.”

Carla Smyth, local services Northern Ireland manager at Epilepsy Action, said: “This announcement highlights that three years on from the first patient recall, even more people have been impacted by unsecure diagnoses. While epilepsy is a difficult condition to diagnose and misdiagnosis does occur, the nature of these misdiagnoses and the ongoing uncertainty for many people is particularly concerning.

“It is right and proper that others who were previously under the care of Dr Watt have now also been recalled. Both recall groups 2 and 3 include people who have been living with an incorrect epilepsy diagnosis for many years. They will have been taking epilepsy medicines that were of no benefit to their health but that could have had potentially damaging side-effects.

“Epilepsy Action Northern Ireland has heard first-hand about the impact of the recall on those affected. It is vital that appropriate support, including mental health support, is made available to those who have been caught up in this process.

“While this is a seemingly isolated case relating to a particular neurologist, it is hard to ignore the context of overstretched and under pressure epilepsy services in Northern Ireland. It is vital that the various inquiries and reviews associated with the recall are completed as a matter of urgency and that recommendations for improvements are fully implemented and funded.

“Lessons must be learnt, and services must be appropriately supported so that people with suspected and diagnosed neurological conditions receive the care and support they deserve. A situation like this must never happen again.”

A third group will be reviewed next, which includes people treated by Dr Watt between 1996 and 2012 and young stroke patients who had not been reviewed as part of the previous groups. People affected have already been contacted. Initial review consultations will be held virtually and clinicians will then decide if a face-to-face appointment is needed. A patient helpline has been set up for those affected, and can be reached at 0800 980 1100.

Mr Swann added that a redress scheme was set up in 2018 to provide compensation to people affected by the “negligent care” of Dr Watt. While its development was paused in 2020 due to the pandemic, work on it is restarting again.

Other reviews will also be carried out on patients of Dr Watt who had died in the 10 years before the recall and more generally on neurology services in Northern Ireland.

For anyone affected by the patient review including those who were previously misdiagnosed with epilepsy, Epilepsy Action Northern Ireland offers a free counselling service.