It’s a busy time for fraudulent doctors. First came the news from Cambodia that a fake physician had spread HIV to hundreds of people by reusing syringes and other medical equipment. And now a more bizarre story from West Palm Beach describes a 17-year-old boy who dressed up like a doctor and “worked” at a local hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center. For about a month.
Finally, according to the story, a patient reported a “child was dressed as a doctor” leading the hospital to investigate the situation and, eventually, call police. No charges against the boy have been filed. Sadly, the boy’s mother arrived and disclosed that the child had an illness and had not been taking his medications.
It is uncertain just what the young poseur did or saw in the time he was at large—the hospital issued assurances that he was not involved in direct care of patients, though this is not altogether certain. An obstetrician-gynecologist interviewed for the story stated the teen had approached him to try to set up some time to shadow him in his office and the hospital. Shadowing a senior doctor is standard operating procedure for medical students, though it would be quite odd for a student, and not a medical school administrator, to contact the specific physician.
A similar story in 2012—also out of Florida—had a different outcome. Matthew Scheidt, then 18 years of age, posed as a physician’s assistant in Kissimmee and appeared to get more involved with treating patients than the West Palm Beach teen. Specifically, he helped perform CPR on a patient who was critically ill from a drug overdose. He ended up being sentenced to a year in jail.
The artful con man is a Hollywood favorite—from Catch Me If You Can to FX’s The Americans, not to mention parts of every secret-agent show ever filmed. The problem is that, though comparably fascinating, actual fraud when successfully sustained is altogether creepy. And recently we have seen plenty of the real type as well as the Hollywood variety—from Christian Gerhartsreiter, aka “Clark Rockefeller,” the subject of a fascinating exploration by the writer Walter Kirn, to Bernie Madoff, to David Hampton, posing as Sidney Poitier’s son and immortalized in Six Degrees of Separation. The long-term negligence of dozens (if not hundreds) of often intelligent people, one after the next, when confronted with the apparently magical presence of a first-rate fraud remains one of the unsolved mysteries of human behavior. And one suspects that, when finally understood, the explanation for this embarrassing groupthink will not place Homo sapiens in a favorable light.
Frauds of the medical stripe are doubly disturbing. Yes of course wondering what is in the mind of someone who decides to slip on a long white lab coat and pretend to be a medical person is a grim one-way street into the heart of darkness—but what about those duped? Unlike Madoff and the Case of the Missing Money or the ersatz Rockefeller or Poitier Junior, the suckers in medical fraudulence are sad, possibly ailing, people looking for help. They’re desperate enough to listen to the first joker sporting an appropriate outfit and a convincing glint in his eye.
The ease of the latest fakery—a 17-year-old boy wandered around the West Palm Beach hospital for a month before anyone questioned it!—seems to derive from a collective willingness if not eagerness to believe just about anyone and anything relating to health. Not just teens in starchy bleached uniforms, but columnists touting mega-vitamins and antioxidants that help a guy live forever or TV shows starring Dr. Oz, The Doctors, and their ilk, that give accurate advice about half the time.
Because hope, not help, is the coin of the realm. The missing part of the health-care debate is this: The medical orthodoxy has embraced facts, and so has embarked on a slavish pursuit to establish a vast evidence base to inform all decisions. But this approach misses the biggest fact of all: The public is totally uninterested in facts and evidence. Around health, as around anything and everything that has about it a whiff of mortality, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are much preferred to cold hard facts, even—and especially—when today’s version is a clueless high-school kid roaming the halls of a hospital in Florida. So of course the kid in sneakers is a doctor—in today’s world of health care, everyone is an expert. All you have to do is to dress up.