How common are doctor impostors?
On Monday this week a Brisbane court fined a man $3,000 for pretending to be a surgeon at the city’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. Nicholas Delaney, 25, stole security credentials to enter the hospital but never interacted with patients, his solicitor told the court. His solicitor said the reason for his pretence was “to make friends”, in particular with a man who worked at the hospital whom he’d met through a dating app. But when Delaney asked for his credentials to be renewed, inquiries were made and his deception unravelled.
A more serious case came to light last year, in which a fake doctor worked in the NSW public health system from 2003 to 2014, treating patients in Wyong, Gosford, Hornsby, Royal North Shore, Manly and Mona Vale hospitals. Shyam Acharya had had some medical training and stole another doctor’s identity in order to practise. He treated hundreds of patients, with his performance reviews describing him as “above average” and a former colleague saying he was “certainly not the worst” he’d worked with. Acharya fled the country when his fraud was discovered and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
You might think these are one-off cases, but doctor impostors may be more common than supposed. Dan Sefton, a British emergency doctor and screenwriter of the BBC fake doctor drama Trust Me, is of the opinion that “there are loads of people who aren’t real doctors”.
“It’s not that hard to fake it if you have some qualifications. Part of this thing is that people don’t ask too many questions,” he told the BBC.
Dr Sefton said there had been a case of a bogus doctor working at his own hospital.
“He only got found out through some administrative thing, because he was actually pretty competent,” he said.
“Often these doctors are very professional and get along very well with their colleagues. The only flaw is that they aren’t real doctors.”
A 1996 study reported on 30 cases of fake doctors working in the National Health Service in the UK and there have been plenty of cases since then. One of the most notorious was Levon Mkhitarian, who treated 3,363 patients in his time working for the NHS. Originally from Georgia, Mkhitarian obtained provisional registration to work under supervision but failed to complete the year’s training required. After fraudulently securing a job, he was struck off, but then forged a host of documents and stole the identity of another doctor to continue working. He was eventually caught out in 2015 and sentenced to six years in jail.
And then there was the case of Stewart Edwards, who practised as a GP for 34 years in the north of England before being exposed. Or the German fake doctor, Christian Eberhard, who forged a degree certificate from Oxford University, trained in surgical techniques and spent two years as an assistant surgeon. During that time he took part in spinal, liver and lung surgery and even amputations.
But perhaps the most chilling imposter of all was Jean-Claude Romand, ostensibly a renowned doctor working at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, living in bourgeois comfort just over the border in the French Alps with his wife and kids. Then one day in 1993 something truly terrible happened. Romand killed his parents and his wife and children, swallowed a handful of barbiturates and set fire to his home. But he didn’t die – he was rescued by the emergency services and arrested by the police.
What came out then was astounding. Romand had no medical qualifications at all. Instead of working at the WHO Geneva headquarters, he’d spend his days sitting alone in its car park. Occasionally, he’d say he had to travel abroad to a conference; on those days, he’d stay at a cheap hotel near the airport, boning up on whatever destination he’d claimed he was going to, in order to have stories to tell his family. He kept up this pretence for 18 years.
Romand had been a medical student, but had inexplicably skipped his second year medical exams. He covered up, and told his parents he’d passed, and continued to pretend to attend medical school. That original lie came to be the cornerstone of a whole edifice of deception, which he bankrolled by embezzling the savings of family and later friends. The murder spree came just as that edifice was about to come tumbling down, as relatives began asking for the money back that Romand had claimed he had invested in Switzerland for them.
Romand was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 and his case is the subject of at least one book and several movies.