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The Weird World of People Pretending to Be Doctors and Getting Away with It

It's called 'prestige fraud', and it's terrifying.

by Katherine Gillespie
Oct 18 2016, 11:15pm

Photo by Victor Torres for Stocksy

Last year, Florida teenager Malachi Love-Robinson opened his own medical practice, complete with paid staff, and performed physical exams on patients. He had only just graduated from high school, but took advantage of a legal loophole that frankly seems like it should not exist: for the bargain price of $29.95, you can buy a degree in "divinity" from the Universal Life Church Seminary that entitles you to place the title "Dr" in front of your name.

Love-Robinson was prosecuted when an undercover agent from the local Sheriff's office entered his clinic and posed as a patient. In a subsequent tweet, the department wryly observed that "just because you saw a season of Grey's Anatomy, doesn't mean you can practice medicine."

These people are always seeking approval from others.

Pretending to be a qualified medical professional when you are not a qualified medical professional is very bad, illegal, and dangerous. And yet, there are numerous cases throughout history of people doing it and getting away with it—sometimes for years. In India, unqualified GPs are arrested so frequently that a charity is now trying to train them upso they can work in the medical field legitimately.

In Australia, fake psychiatrist Nora Zakardas famously spent years conducting medical examinations, giving out prescriptions, and advising friends and family members, despite possessing zero qualifications in the field. Zakardas was able to fool even her own doctor, who allowed the con artist to sit in on her examinations and access the medical records of other patients. Eventually, it occurred to a suspicious friend that it might be worth ringing up the medical board and checking whether Zacardas was registered.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency tells Broadly that since 2014, it has successfully prosecuted no less than 17 unregistered practitioners. It currently has eight pending matters before the courts.

So how does anyone actually fool people into thinking they're a qualified professional who has spent the better part of a decade in medical school? Being a doctor, as you may be aware, requires certain specialized skills: delivering babies, administering injections, being able to maintain composure around human secretions. As much as we'd like to think otherwise, there are limits to how much a cursory Google search can teach the average person about bodies and illness.

Read more: 'I Thought My Baby Was A Little Horse': When You Trip After Giving Birth

Monash University's Dr. Danny Sullivan is an actual-qualified psychiatrist and a specialist in criminal fraud. He says successful fake doctors all follow similar patterns: "They'll restrict themselves to a couple of procedures or activities that other people won't necessarily determine that they're inept in, and gradually as they develop the bravado or the skill to pass themselves off more effectively, they might then move to try things that are more ambitious," he tells Broadly.

"So, if they're successful, it's because they've started off as reasonably humble, and then only gradually ramped up what they're doing."

The deeper you dig into the history of fake doctors, the more sinister the stories become. Many, many horrible men have posed as gynecologists. It also becomes apparent that, like all con artists, fake doctors tend to prey upon society's most vulnerable people—and that is partly how they evade detection for so long.

"In some situations, con artists will work in small ethnic or minority communities with non-English speaking patients, to exploit that vulnerability," Sullivan explains.

Dodgy cosmetic surgeons loom large in the trans community. In 2015, South Florida's Oneal Ron Morris—a trans woman herself—was finally arrested after administering illegal cosmetic injections to a number of trans women, whose faces and buttocks became disfigured by a supposed "silicon" mixture that contained cement, super glue, and a number of other toxic substances. One victim died of acute respiratory failure following one of Morris's procedures, while others were permanently maimed.

Honestly, faking a medical degree appears almost ludicrously easy if you've got the bravado to pull it off. The whole gig appears to mostly involve buying a stethoscope and ordering business cards with your name on them, followed by the initials "M.D". From there, you're basically home free—and if the strange history of people pretending to be doctors has anything to teach us, it's that sick people are often gullible as hell.

Although medical boards encourage new patients to check whether their doctor is a registered medical practitioner, it's far from common practice. "In many situations, you expect another person has checked for you," Sullivan says. "If you see someone in a hospital wearing a white coat, the assumption is that they've therefore been approved by someone else."

People worried about their health are among the most willing to believe unlikely stories—the more desperate they are, the harder their confirmation bias kicks in. Which is, of course, what makes posing as a doctor so deeply unconscionable. So, why would anyone choose to put the lives of strangers into their own lying, unqualified hands? It's not so much a selfish act as it is a totally reckless one.

They choose occupations which give them some form of prestige.

According to Sullivan, fake doctors fall into the same personality type as those who pose in other elite "hero" professions. "We see people who claim to be doctors, paramedics, war veterans, and lawyers," he says. "What they tend to have in common is that they choose occupations which give them some form of prestige or recognition, a situation where they get positive feedback and validation for their skills and abilities."

From a mental health point of view, fake doctors are very alike. "In many cases they don't have a formal psychiatric diagnosis. In some cases they're depressed or have substance abuse issues, but in most cases they have personality difficulties. The technical term we use to describe them is 'fantasists'.

"These people are always seeking approval from others," Sullivan continues. "The war veterans always claim to have been in covert operations, they want to wear medals and march in the parade. The doctors don't want to be a GP, they want to set up in the emergency department or do something where they have a little bit of adrenaline."

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Phony Californian doctor Keith Allen Barton exemplifies the fantasist hero complex that Sullivan describes. The then 50-year-old promised desperate patients he was a medical genius who could cure their HIV and cancer—charging them huge sums of money for the privilege, then (of course) failing to deliver his promised miracles. He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2013.

Look, sometimes it's okay to fake it. Say you know Photoshop in the job interview. Contour your cheekbones—hell, contour your cleavage. Telling a few lies for personal or professional gain, for the most part, hurts no one. You know what does pose a risk to other people? Performing an appendectomy when your highest qualification is a liberal arts degree. Please avoid this temptation, everyone.

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