“As a doctor I’ve encountered imposters in real life – there was actually one in the department where I worked,” says Dan Sefton, the writer (and real-life doctor) behind new Jodie Whittaker drama Trust Me. “Often they are well liked and competent!
“I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
The BBC1 drama stars Whittaker as Cath Hardacre, a nurse who is fired for whistleblowing. Desperate to provide for her young daughter and get a fresh start, she steals the identity of a doctor friend who is emigrating to New Zealand and begins a new life at a hospital in Scotland as “Dr Ally Sutton”.
It might sound like an unlikely tale – but is it?
You’d hope that it would be impossible to get away with bluffing it as a doctor. But historically there have been some mind-boggling examples, and a 1996 Bath University study even found 30 bogus doctors who had succeeded in working for the NHS. Looking more recently, there are surprising numbers of medical wannabes who passed as doctors in the UK and abroad.
Of course, there are unknown numbers of impostor doctors who have never been caught… but here is just a sample of the cases we already know about:
The impostor doctor who treated 3,000
A young man named Levon Mkhitarian came to the UK from the former Soviet State of Georgia in 2007. A few years later he started training to work as a locum doctor – that is, a doctor who can step in as a substitute when full-time staff are unavailable.
Mkhitarian dropped out of his foundation year. Still, that didn’t stop him: over the next few years he simply kept on working within the NHS, forging emails from the General Medical Council declaring he was fit to work.
This ruse was discovered in 2013, and Mkhitarian was suspended and struck of the GMC’s register altogether.
But instead of stopping, the impostor doctor took things even further: he stole the identity of a real medic and obtained work at another NHS trust, where he worked in cancer, cardiology, surgery, transplant, and A&E. Here he created a fictitious CV and forged bank statements, energy bills and letters. This worked for two years but in 2015 he started work at a hospital in Kent where the HR department tried to create an ID card for him – and the system showed one had already been issued in that doctor’s name with a completely different photo.
Mkhitarian was sentenced to six years in jail.
The fake surgeon who performed amputations
Considering how unconvincing the court found Christian Eberhard‘s forgeries, it’s hard to understand how he was allowed to operate 190 times – but he was.
Eberhard duped the German health service by claiming to have qualified at the University of Oxford, even though he wrote his own degree certificate in a fountain pen. He also spelt doctor with a K on his bogus UK qualifications, and misspelled medicine. In reality he had only spent 10 months working in a hospital for his national service in Germany, and certainly was far from a doctor: in fact, he was a former banker.
Having persuaded the medical authorities that he had qualified, he spent two years training in surgery techniques, was promoted to assistant surgical doctor, and took part in spinal, liver and lung operations as well as amputations.
Eberhard told the court in Germany: “I am proud of what I accomplished nonetheless. Less legs were amputated when I was there because I knew what I was doing.”
The doctor in adult psychiatry with two identities
When Nigerian-born doctor Florence Olaye kept failing a basic English test required to work in the NHS, she instead adopted a second identity – Florence Gberevbie.
Desperate to work as a doctor in the UK, she used a fake passport with a different birth date and false documents from the Home Office to secure a job in a hospital. Olaye was able to spend five months working in general adult psychiatry in the NHS, but was exposed when she applied for a job with South London and Maudsley NHS Trust in 2008. An HR officer spotted discrepancies in her application and alerted the NHS counter-fraud squad.
Olaye was arrested in 2009 and jailed for a year in 2011.
The unqualified chemist who posed as a GP for 30 years
Back in the 90s, a GP in Bradford who had been working for 30 years was suddenly discovered to be an imposter. The man was actually an unqualified chemist who had arrived in Britain 1961 with a fake Pakistani medical degree and hospital reference, which was enough to fool the General Medical Council.
He was only uncovered because a member of his family finally told the authorities. The impostor doctor, who by this point was in his early 60s, was jailed for five years.
The ‘Great Impostor’ who saved lives in the Korean War
This one is an old story and comes from America, but it’s too interesting to leave out.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara may have died in 1982, but he lives on in the Tony Curtis movie The Great Impostor. He was a serial liar who posed as everything from a civil engineer to a Benedictine monk. Worryingly, Demara was able to steal the identity of a doctor he’d met, Joseph C Cyr, and pose as a trauma surgeon aboard a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer during the Korean War. But fortunately for the sailors on board the ship, he was actually pretty good at it.
His greatest test came when he was faced with 16 combat casualties, several with life-threatening surgeries and one with a bullet in his chest. As the only surgeon on board, Demara immediately disappeared into his room with a textbook on general surgery, speed-read all the important chapters and then just went for it. None of casualties died. But the game was up when Joseph Cyr’s actual mother read about the heroic “surgeon” – and rumbled Demara as an impostor.
A prison ‘doctor’ who over-prescribed opiates
Oluwadamilola Opemuyi managed to treat 91 patients before she was found out. Having completed her degree in music, technology and public relations, Opemuyi set her heart on working in mental health – but she was frustrated to be told she’d first have to complete five years in medical school.
Instead she took a shortcut and stole the identity of a fully qualified GP, Oluwadamilola Adeyo from Manchester University, making use of a conveniently similar name. Opemuyi also used a false driving licence, passport and marriage certificate to pull it off.
Opemuyi first found it difficult to find work as a doctor, but having duped a locum agency, she was sent off to work as a doctor in various prisons. She received several complaints after accidentally increasing an inmate’s opiate-based drug to a dose outside prison protocols and had her contract terminated, but this impostor doctor still managed to find one more day’s work at a GP surgery in Essex where she even issued a death certificate, and then work at a health centre in Liverpool.
Despite the complaints against her, Opemuyi’s true identity only came to light when she was arrested at a pharmacy after trying to file two prescriptions she had written for herself.
The locum GP whose CV was a work of fiction
The truth behind Abdul Pirzada’s medical background is a little unclear, but it certainly wasn’t related to what was on his CV.
Pirzada came to the UK as an asylum seeker and spent seven years working as a practice nurse in Birmingham, and then as a locum CP. This was all based on his “glittering medical career”.
But contrary to what his CV said, he had not gained his medical qualifications in Pakistan. Nor had he worked as a doctor in Bosnia or Glasgow, and he certainly had not been an adviser to an EU commission on refugees. The only thing the police could work out was that he may have studied medicine in Russia.
Pirzada was jailed for 15 months.
The fraudster who tried to dupe the NHS twice
Conrad De Souza was caught and jailed in 2011 after he fraudulently claimed to be a doctor – and after he got out of jail, he did it again.
The conman had enrolled at the University of London medical school in 1980 but dropped out. Years later he was employed by Lewisham Primary Care Trust and posed as a doctor, but in 2011 he was convicted for pretending to be a GP to gain clinical strategy roles within the NHS – positions in which he would have had a great deal of power over healthcare.
After getting out of jail, De Souza tried to get a job in healthcare and again lied about his qualifications. He was caught and jailed for a second time.
Arslan Khan, specialist prosecutor from the CPS Specialist Fraud Division, told the BBC: “Conrad de Souza lied time and again in order to attempt to secure a number of senior health roles. De Souza carried on telling these lies despite a previous conviction and prison sentence for similar fraudulent behaviour.”
The fake doctor to an Italian king
This is a very old example, but it does show how far a conman can go.
Leander Tomarkin was born in 1895 in Switzerland. Though he had a terrible academic record and had dropped out of college, he claimed to have a doctorate in medicine and to have invented a miracle medicine – Antimicrobum tomarkin – to cure everything from tuberculosis to malaria.
He sounds like an obvious fraudster, but many were taken in. In the 1920s Tomarkin treated the cousin of the Italian king Victor Emmanuel III for pneumonia, and the monarch was so impressed he hired him as the family’s personal physician.
This gave him such cachet that he was able to take the scam to the US and found the Tomarkin-Foundation Chemistry Research. In 1931 he even persuaded Albert Einstein to serve as honorary present at one of his medical conferences. Einstein stepped down the following year, reportedly because Tomarkin’s former landlady contacted him and the top scientist realised this impostor was not all he seemed.
Four-part psychological drama Trust Me will begin at 9pm on Tuesday 8th August