On track of medical impostors
From Health cover attention of the community,’’ Allnutt says.
Queensland forensic psychiatrist Robert Moyle says that while it is difficult to generalise what causes people to pass themselves off as doctors, medical impostors can crave the perceived higher status of being a doctor — a craving that can be traced to fantasies that developed while growing up of being someone more important than they really were.
While such fantasies are common and held by most people at some point, the difference in people who do go on to pretend to be doctors is that they cross the line and put their fantasies into practice.
If while having fantasies of grandeur, they also — or alternatively — enjoy the sense of power they derive from deceiving people, that could create the right conditions for someone to attempt a deception of this kind.
‘‘ The very ill are very easy to target, because they all want to hope their lives will be saved,’’ Moyle says.
‘‘ The key issue is that it’s very complex. It can be based on having no clear personal sense of identity coming out of childhood — and having good social skills and being able to ‘ read’ other people, and being able to ‘ play’ them.
‘‘ With that comes the rewards of thinking themselves ‘ better’ than other people, and there’s the social status — and you may also get financial rewards.’’
Although there is no evidence the phenomenon is growing, it has certainly been recognised since the birth of psychiatry, and even earlier.
In 1886 the List of Unregistered Practitioners was published, listing 257 people who made unjustified claims to be doctors. The listing, covering Australia and New Zealand, included some colourful entries, such as those for a ‘‘ Professor McCreery’’ of Surry Hills, Sydney, a former furniture dealer then trading under the grandiose title of ‘‘ Botanic, Hydropathic, and Acetopathic Physician’’. Another entry warned readers that the ‘‘ world renowned Danish herbalist’’ Hans Rasmussen was claiming to treat ‘‘ Private complaints, Nervous Dability (sic), and effects from self-abuse a Specialty’’.
The tome’s compiler, doctor and medical journalist Ludwig Bruck, wrote a few years later that in NSW there was one untrained practitioner for every genuine doctor, and these ‘‘ irregular medical practitioners of all nationalities are found in every part of Australia, though nowhere in such astonishing numbers as NSW’’.
Allnutt says that although rare, ‘‘ when it does occur, there are media reports, so the feeling is that there are charlatans everywhere. It’s relatively rare, but it does happen, clearly.’’