A succession of patients treated by Dr Michael Watt, the man at the heart of a major patient recall, spoke warmly about him as they staged a gathering in Belfast.
The small rally was organised by a group calling itself ‘We Support Dr Watt’, which says it has about 400 members.
About a dozen patients were present to tell stories of how Dr Watt helped them, and to decry the media attention he has faced since it was announced on May that 2,500 of his patients were being recalled – a number which has since risen to over 3,000.
The Belfast health trust said these patients were to be reassesed so that “we can be confident and thorough in ensuring that patients are having the best possible care”, following what it called a “review of patient notes” carried out by both the trust and the Royal College of Physicians.
Dr Watt is not currently working, either privately or in the NHS. His fitness to practice is under investigation by the General Medical Council, which regulates clinicians .
The trust has previously said that whilst he was “almost universally loved by his patients”, all healthcare systems have risk and “occasionally individual practitioners’ performance can dip”.
Those at today’s gathering said they wanted to highlight their positive experiences with the consultant neurologist.
It was staged outside the BBC’s Great Victoria Street building in the hope of heightening media attention.
Robbie Brennan, a 56-year-old former ship rigger from Whitehead in east Antrim, said he had been an epilepsy patient of Dr Watt since 1999.
“He’s been the most caring, professional and reassuring and compassionate person in helping me come to terms with one of the most traumatic things,” he said. “He’s done a lot of good for me, and I want people to know that.
“I can honestly say Michael Watt saved my life.”
Audrey Barr, a 51-year-old care assistant from Carrickfergus, said she had been a patient of his for about 10 years since getting a brain injury in a fall, something which has left her prone to fits.
“He’s kept me alive,” she said. “He helped me to live life. They have just judged this guy, and haven’t asked us. I’m sure he’s in a dark hole today.”
Ann Allen, a 52-year-old former private secretary from Banbridge, has multiple scelrosis and had been his patient since 1999.
“My husband [David] was at school with him and says Michael was talking about doing neurology since fifth form,” she said.
“My feeling is Dr Watt has done so much for all us patients over the years, the least I can do is be here to voice my support for him.”
As to what she feels the reasons are for the action against Dr Watt, she suggested it may be motivated by “jealousy”, or a desire to save money.
Helen Howell, in her 60s and from Bangor, said after three months of not being diagnosed, Dr Watt had correctly identified that she had a rare condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome.
She described the action against him as a “witch-hunt”, and said she will “support him all the way”.
Among the concerns raised by demonstrators today was the idea that the patient recall which was announced earlier this month was not spurred on any suspected misdiagnoses, but by a need to update records of patients who were left without a consultant following the halting of Dr Watt’s work, which took effect in summer of last year.
In a statement today, the Belfast Health Trust said of the recall: “We understand the strength of feeling surrounding the recall of patients.
“This decision was not taken lightly.
“It was based on an independent and expert review carried out by the Royal College of Physicians which was unequivocal in its recommendation that the diagnosis, and care and treatment provided to patients should be reviewed.”