BBC Drama “Trust me” [I’m a doctor] – could it happen in real life.

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BBC Drama “Trust me” [I’m a doctor] – could it happen in real life.

Many of you may have seen last years BBC drama “Trust Me” which follows Dr Alison Sutton, also known as Cath Hardacre, a female nurse who loses her job as a result of whistle blowing and then assumes her best friend’s identity as a senior doctor when said best friend leaves the UK to live in New Zealand.As solicitors who assist doctors in obtaining registration with the GMC and in relation to Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service Fitness to Practise Panel hearings, we take a look in this article at some statistics relating to the impersonation of doctors and examine how easy or difficult it would be to pose as a qualified doctor in the UK.

Is it illegal to impersonate a doctor?

Under Section 49 (1) of the Medical Act 1983, it is a criminal offence to impersonate a doctor. As the word ‘doctor’ can also be an academic title, it is not a protected title in the strictest sense of the term. However, the Medical Act states as follows:

‘a person who wilfully and falsely presents to be or takes or uses the name or title of physician, doctor of medicine, licentiate in medicine and surgery, bachelor of medicine, surgeon, general practitioner or apothecary, or any name, title, addition or description implying that he is registered under any provision of this Act, or that he is recognised by law as a physician or surgeon or licentiate in medicine and surgery or a practitioner in medicine or an apothecary, shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.’

Are the authorities aware of persons impersonating doctors?

The Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Excellence (CRHE) that used to scrutinise and oversee the work of the nine healthcare regulators in the UK, which includes the General Medical Council, (GMC) before the Professional Standards Authority took over this role, published a report in February 2010 entitled “Protecting the public from unregistered practitioners: Tackling misuse of protected title”.

The GMC were invited to comment for the purposes of this report and, at that time, stated that most cases of unregistered practice are doctors whose registration had lapsed. Statistics showed there were 262 complaints of unregistered practice in 2008 and from January to October 2009, there were 134. Of these, 11 in 2008 and 10 in 2009 were investigations following concerns expressed by members of the public about individuals passing themselves off as doctors. However, the GMC stated,

“in the majority of these cases the complaint related to people holding PhDs or calling themselves doctor for the purposes of establishing credibility.”

The GMC also stated that information about unregistered practitioners usually reached them from employer organisations or pharmacists who check registration.

Since 2004 the Crown Prosecution Service states that there have been 13 cases of people pretending to be registered as a doctor.

High profile cases

Let’s have a look at two particularly high profile cases to see the lengths that people have gone to in the past in order to pretend that they are indeed medically qualified to practise as doctors.

In 2012 a former asylum seeker from Afghanistan called Abdul Pirzada pleaded guilty to impersonating a doctor. He was a 50 year old man who had previously worked as a health care assistant in Birmingham, as a doctor’s assistant and then as a locum GP before he was convicted of fraud offences. Mr Pirzada had exaggerated his work experience and qualifications to convince his employers that he was a doctor and was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment as a result of his conviction. Reported here

More recently in 2015 Levon Mkhitarian was also jailed after stealing another doctors identity. He came to work in the UK from Eastern Europe in 2007 and obtained entry onto the medical register by getting registration with the GMC. He was later struck off this register because he had submitted false letters in order to obtain employment as a locum doctor. However, after being struck off, he then stole the identity of a genuine doctor and began to work at a different NHS hospital.

But how did he get away with it for so long? He worked in transplant department, Accident & Emergency, surgery departments, cardiology departments and oncology departments by forging a CV, bills, letters and bank statements belonging to the doctor whose identity he had stolen. Mr Mkhitarian treated around 3,000 following his name being erased from the medical register until he was found out in 2015 whilst working at a hospital in Kent. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

Less famously, in the 1990s a man from Bradford was found to have been practising as a doctor for more than 30 years when he was, in fact, an unqualified pharmacist from Pakistan. How did he get away with this? He allegedly obtained a false medical degree and reference and convinced the GMC that he should be allowed onto the medical register.

In 1996 Bath University conducted a study and found that there had been 30 cases of people impersonating doctors and working for the NHS.

This same study found that these “imposters” were able to get away with it by mixing into the team they are working with and so long as their work has a level of acceptability about it, they continue without attracting attention to themselves.

The study found that where the imposters were from other countries, their colleagues would often put any discrepancies in their conduct down to cultural differences.

All doctors in the UK must be registered with the GMC and must hold a licence to practise with the relevant type of GMC registration and this should be checked by any potential employers.

What checks are actually carried out before someone is allowed to register with the GMC?

Depending on what type of medical graduate you are, there are a number of routes to GMC registration which this article will not cover.

However, suffice to say that anyone wishing to register with the GMC when they have qualified abroad must show evidence of their degree certificates, internship certificate (in some cases) and references from those he/she has previously worked with. These International Medical Graduates are also expected to show the experience that he/she has and to prove that they have continued to keep their medical skills up to date.

Once the GMC has verified the information and decided that the person should be registered, the person is invited to the offices of the GMC for an identity check.

If the person is then awarded GMC registration, he/she can begin work as a doctor in the UK.

It is then down to the employers themselves (often the NHS) to check professional registration and qualifications, the person’s employment history and references, their right to work in the UK (a passport in the case of UK nationals), work health assessments and criminal record.

In BBC 1’s Trust Me, we see Cath Hardacre is asked by her employers to produce a copy of her passport. Because her friend, whose identity she has stolen, has taken her own passport with her to New Zealand, this forces Cath to obtain a false passport for £800.

In conclusion, whilst we believe it would be very difficult to pass oneself off as a medically qualified doctor given the checks carried out by both the GMC and then at local level, this article shows that it is possible.

If you are a doctor wishing to obtain GMC registration or if you are a doctor under investigation by the GMC or facing an MPTS Fitness to Practise Panel hearing, please contact us online or give us a call on 0161 827 9500 We can help.

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