Patient’s family demand answers about work of retired neurologist behind biggest NHS recall in the North

Bereaved families react to scathing review that examined medical files of 44 deceased patients under Dr Michael Watt’s care

When Maureen Grogan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in a Belfast hospital, a consultant told her she was the poster girl for the disease.

The former hairdresser died in 2018 and on Tuesday her daughters were among a group of protesters outside the North’s health watchdog offices demanding the truth about their loved ones’ care at the hands of retired neurologist Dr Michael Watt.

Standing behind the banner #Time for Answers, bereaved families were reacting to a scathing NHS review that probed the medical files of 44 deceased patients under Watt’s care.

It found “significant” care failings, misdiagnoses and appalling communication with relatives. Many of his notes were kept on “scraps of paper” and he was often “rude and unhelpful”.

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The Grogan case was among the files examined.

Lauded as the “top man” in his field, Dr Watt was based at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for over 20 years and is at the centre of the biggest NHS patient recall in Northern Ireland, with more than 5,000 former patients reassessed due to safety concerns.

The medic was never suspended but instead “restricted” from performing clinical duties by his employer, the Belfast Trust, in 2017. He retired in 2020 and last year removed himself from the medical register in advance of a tribunal hearing.

Recalling her mother’s first appointment with Dr Watt in 2007, Patricia Crook said the “bombshell” diagnosis was made “within a short period of time”:

“She broke her back after slipping on ice and began suffering numbness down her left side. Prior to that she was always healthy.

“After going down different avenues, she ended up at Michael Watt’s door. My sister, Judith, was with her and described the consultation as what would be considered the sobriety test in America. This was followed by a tap, tap, tap.

“Mum was quite a character. She had a great sense of adventure and was a really good-looking woman. He told her quite quickly, ‘yes, you have Parkinson’s’. She said, ‘don’t be ridiculous, I couldn’t have’. He said, ‘madam, indeed you do’.

“The thing that I really struggle with it is that throughout it he called her his poster girl for Parkinson’s. I am a tailor by trade and I had different customers coming at the time with Parkinson’s. I was going home and saying, ‘mum, you’re doing really well, you don’t seem as bad as others’.

“When we eventually got her medical records, Michael Watt said there was another junior doctor in the room for her diagnosis – which there wasn’t.

“One of the reasons he pinned the Parkinson’s diagnosis at that time was that he claimed in the notes that my sister said my mother had intermittent tremors. She didn’t say this. She never had a tremor.”

Maureen Grogan died a fortnight after the recall scandal first broke in 2018, when the Belfast Trust initially called up 2,500 of Dr Watt’s former patients.

A letter was sent to the Grogan’s home in Glengormley requesting that the 73-year-old undergo a medical reassessment – a decade after being under Dr Watt’s care and in the final week of her life.

She was prescribed antipsychotic drugs and other medication to treat Parkinson’s:

“Basically she was put on a selection of drugs and that was that. No review, nothing. My mum always complained of feeling really unwell on the drugs, they didn’t agree with her. Rather than review her, Watt upped the drugs,” adds Crook.

“The really frightening thing for us was that she developed COPD. Within 18 months, my mum was dead. There is a possible link between the drugs she was on and the fact they shouldn’t be used on someone with this respiratory condition.

“The thing that I think about at night is, did that speed up her illness? We’ve cried our hearts out over this.”

The expert review published on Monday was carried out by the Royal College of Physicians and examined the medical records of “certain” deceased patients under Dr Watt’s care who died between 2008 and 2018.

Sources say thousands more patients could potentially be affected and there are now fresh calls for many cases to be reopened by the coroner, as the review raises concerns about the death certificates of five patients.

The Grogans were among first families to agree to take part in the review when it was ordered by the Department of Health in 2018.

They say the protracted nature of the process has been “horrendous”.

The watchdog, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), commissioned the review and acknowledged its “traumatic” impact on relatives giving evidence. It expressed “regret” over the timescales.

“My sister has been diagnosed with PTSD,” Crook says.

“But throughout this, we have conducted ourselves with dignity. We have given them very clear information which is the truth.

“Our initial reaction when we first got the call four years ago was: we have to do this for our mum. Thankfully my sister and I are on same page and it has been a victory that they have acknowledged the failings.

“The thing is my mum loved Dr Watt. Not near the end. I never met the man but apparently he was quite charming.

“Don’t forget when you’ve been diagnosed with a debilitating illness – and then to be told you’re doing the best with it – why wouldn’t you like the person?

“But my sister saw right through it.

“I will always channel my mum. She was incredible.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times