On track of med­i­cal im­pos­tors

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

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.’’

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