The psychology of physician imposters: 4 things to know

Physician imposters can be extremely dangerous to patients and pose a liability to healthcare organizations. While they range in age and background, physician imposters tend to share certain behavioral and personality traits, according to Broadly.

Pretending to be a medical professional is illegal and poses life-threatening risks for patients, yet many people have gotten away with it, sometimes for years.

In June, two Colorado state boards and the state attorney general filed a contempt citation against an allegedly unlicensed woman who posed as a physician and administered intravenous treatments for a decade. After getting caught once last year, in February, Malachi Love-Robinson, then 18 years old, was accused of pretending to be a physician again. In another case, Cecil Alexander Kent Jr. of Eastlake, Ohio, pleaded guilty to his role in a scheme to defraud Medicare of approximately $6.2 million while he posed as a licensed physician. In March a woman in Maryland was sentenced to three years in prison for impersonating a physician assistant and treating and diagnosing 137 infants and children.

These cases may involve a diverse set of characters, but they share many commonalities. Here are four things to know about the psychology of a physician imposter, according to Broadly.

1. Danny Sullivan, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told Broadly fake physicians follow similar "practice" patterns: "They'll restrict themselves to a couple of procedures or activities that other people won't necessarily determine that they're inept in, and gradually as they develop the bravado or the skill to pass themselves off more effectively, they might then move to try things that are more ambitious," he said. "So, if they're successful, it's because they've started off as reasonably humble, and then only gradually ramped up what they're doing."

2. In many instances, physician imposters focus on taking advantage of society's most vulnerable populations. They often work in small ethnic or minority communities with non-English speaking patients, according to Mr. Sullivan. For instance, in 2015, Oneal Ron Morris, a trans woman, was arrested after providing illegal cosmetic injections to numerous other trans women, whose faces and buttocks became permanently disfigured as a result of her concoction — which included a mixture of cement, super glue and other toxic substances, according to the report. One victim died of acute respiratory failure after one of Ms. Morris' procedures.

3. Physician imposters often have the same personality type as those who impersonate other "hero" professionals, such as paramedics, war veterans and lawyers. "What they tend to have in common is that they choose occupations that give them some form of prestige or recognition, a situation where they get positive feedback and validation for their skills and abilities," said Mr. Sullivan, according to the report. These individuals crave approval from others.

4. Physician imposters are also often similar from a mental health perspective. "In many cases they don't have a formal psychiatric diagnosis," Mr. Sullivan told Broadly. "In some cases they're depressed or have substance abuse issues, but in most cases they have personality difficulties. The technical term we use to describe them is 'fantasists.'"

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