3 easy steps to fake a medical degree

Karen Cheung

 Karen Cheung-Larivee

Recent stories that fall into the crazy-but-true category highlight a disturbing trend: Unlicensed con artists posing as clinicians. A Florida teenager impersonated a hospital physician assistant. A Georgia man was charged with posing as a doctor and treating 500 seniors. And then there's the notorious "butt doctor," charged with injecting Fix-A-Flat into patients who thought they were getting a cosmetic procedure.

How did the alleged criminals dupe patients and even other providers? Here are three ways unlicensed individuals fool hospitals and patients:

1. Dress the part
Oneal Morris, the South Florida woman arrested in July for manslaughter, was accused of injecting patients with unknown substances during black-market surgeries, leading to the infection and death of Shatarka Nuby, the Associated Press reported. Morris sometimes wore medical scrubs and carried a stethoscope, according to the AP.

In a separate case, then 17-year old Matthew Scheidt showed up to Florida's Osceola Regional Medical Center emergency department, wearing scrubs and a lab coat and carrying a stethoscope, playing the part of a physician assistant.

2. Learn the lingo
In addition to looking the part, Scheidt had learned medical terminology by using a smartphone app to avoid detection, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Likewise, in another case, Ernest Addo of Austell, Ga., was charged unlawfully practicing medicine; investigators are combing through about 500 patients' records for potential related harm, according to another Associated Press article. Addo, who did have some medical training, apparently consulted ask.com when a nurse questioned his treatment plan.

3. Get credentials
Addo, who saw patients at four senior centers and a rehabilitation center owned by Agape Senior Primary Care, allegedly stole the identity of Arthur Kennedy, a friend and real doctor.

Hired as a general practitioner, Addo conducted patient exams patients and wrote prescriptions. However, Addo didn't have sole oversight of patients and, as far as Agape can tell, didn't provide inappropriate diagnosis or treatment, according to the AP.

Perhaps the most startling case is the Scheidt ordeal, in which the teen slid by for two weeks, according to CNN. Due to a clerical error, Scheidt was able to obtain a medical badge from the hospital.

The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration pointed out inadequacies in personnel oversight that allowed Scheidt to obtain credentials and access to confidential patient information, another Orlando Sentinel article noted. Scheidt changed bandages, handled IVs, assisted in patient exams and even performed CPR.

Scheidt told investigators, "Their error was putting me in, apparently, as a physician assistant into their computer," according to WIBW. "Let's even say that I said I was a physician assistant. Let's even say that I was. Are you that stupid that you are just going to put me in the system as that, without any credentials or any paperwork or nothing?"

Although he pleaded not guilty, a Florida jury last week found Scheidt guilty, CNN reported. Oneal Morris posted $25,000 bond as part of an agreement with prosecutors, NBC 6 noted. And Ernest Osei Addo, currently in detection, is facing four counts of practicing medicine without a medical license, one count of financial identity fraud and one count of obtaining items worth more than $10,000 under false pretense, Lexington Patch reported.

Even though the cases drew Doogie Howser comparisons and botched butt jokes, the issue is no laughing matter.

Granted, these are extreme (and hopefully rare) cases, but they highlight the important role of hospitals in preventing such scary events from happening:

  • Have a solid a credentialing process, verifying references and past work experience and asking about anything that might be a red flag. Even if the hospital is short staffed, it shouldn't sacrifice the verification part in the interest of time.
  • Train staff to spot suspicious behavior (such as diverting drugs, writing prescriptions to oneself or not being able to justify a treatment plan without having to look it up on a search engine). Just like in the operating room, encourage staff in the workplace to pause when they suspect something is "off."
  • Encourage staff to report to the physician wellness board, human resources, the department chief or the authorities, when necessary. It's not only important to have a reporting mechanism in place but also to let staff know there is a process. Notify them upon orientation and remind them in organizationwide memos.

After all, there are individuals of dubious character but with legitimate resumes who are applying for medical positions too. - Karen (@FierceHealth)