People are impersonating physicians online to build clout, and they could face legal consequences.
A recent website is being called into question as it may be impersonating a physician and potentially confusing patients.
About five years ago, Patrick Yam, MD, CCFP, started his practice. In an effort to grow an online presence, he eventually turned to a web developer for help. As his website grew traction, other websites began to link back, or backlink, to Yam’s website, including a website allegedly impersonating a dermatologist.
The website, suspected by Yam of being run by someone impersonating a physician, looks legitimate at first glance. The webpage includes a photo, physician credentials, an attached LinkedIn profile, dermatological "expertise" procedures, including botox and facioplasty, and a short section about the education of the supposed physician. However, a deeper dive shows how easy it is to pretend to be a licensed physician online.
The supposed physician’s name and interviews have appeared in several articles from different media organizations, adding to the apparent illusion. However, upon closer inspection, the photo of the doctor on the website belongs to another person, the LinkedIn profile doesn’t exist, and there is no medical degree on record for the physician’s name.
It’s unclear if this supposed physician is treating patients, but it seems they only built a presence by doling out information and advice online. There isn’t a brick-and-mortar location on the website.
MDLinx tried contacting the supposed physician but did not receive a response.
However, Yam noted that the supposed physician has responded to media outlets and is quoted in online articles. In the past, the supposed physician did respond to media requests via Help a Reporter Out (HARO). HARO is an online database that connects journalists and bloggers with potential sources and experts. The supposed doctor was able to provide quotes and information about dermatology to several media outlets, raising the question of how this website and profile slipped through any vetting process.
“Authenticity is extremely important to us at Cision, and we are always working to ensure validity across our platforms. We continue to monitor the quality of media requests and responses using a combination of technology and humans to review and identify the vast majority of fake as well as potentially harmful content,” the HARO team told MDLinx.
“With fake sources like this being quoted, it concerns me that patients may be misinformed and not get the best treatment or, even worse, be harmed by following bad advice,” says Yam.
How often are people impersonating physicians?
It’s not unheard of for a person to impersonate a doctor. In April of this year, the Los Angeles County District Attorney filed charges against a fake physician, Stephan Gevorkian, who allegedly falsified physician credentials and treated thousands of patients, some with life-threatening illnesses. Gevorkian illegally treated patients for years.
“‘Practicing medicine without a license is not only a criminal activity in California, it can cause irreparable harm to the health of unsuspecting people, some with serious illnesses, who believe they are under the care of a licensed physician,’” District Attorney Gascón said in a news release.
Some cases of people impersonating physicians are even more outlandish.
There was a case several years ago in Florida where a teenager attached “Dr.” to his name after paying a slight fee to become a “doctor” in divinity from the Universal Life Church Seminary. (Yes, that’s the same online source that helps friends officiate weddings.) He went on to treat patients and even hire staff for his fake practice. He was eventually found out, but not before he scammed one patient out of thousands of dollars.
How do they get away with it, and what are the legal ramifications?
According to a 2021 poll, doctors are trusted by many Americans. Almost 70% of Americans find healthcare workers trustworthy, which may make it easier to actually impersonate one.
“In general, I am guessing that the majority of patients do not ask for the physician's license credentials and NPI number and trust that if an individual says they are a physician, then to take that at face value,” says Kristen Fuller, MD, a former emergency room physician.
There can be a range of legal ramifications for someone pretending to be a doctor, even if it’s just online, including possible mail fraud, wire fraud, and computer fraud, explains David Sokolow, Co-Chair of Fox Rothschild’s Health Law Group.
Of course, if an individual impersonating a physician actually treats patients, that leads to more legal issues. “You could have a patient who could arguably have a claim of malpractice against somebody for doing something that was negligent or maybe even battery, which is unlawful touching,” says Sokolow.
With all the risk, why would someone impersonate a physician? According to Sokolow, it’s the advertising dollars, the income from patients, or the money made from billing insurance companies.
“So you can get your hands around all of the areas where somebody is potentially a victim. Not just the person who's receiving the information and relying upon it, but other people in the system, who are thinking this person is a doctor and acting accordingly,” says Sokolow.
In the case of the fake website, the answer to “Why?” may be found where we began: internet clout. By driving visibility and links to a website, that website, in turn, becomes a valuable asset that can be sold, explains Matthew Kneller, Co-Founder of Qwoted, a network that connects verified experts with media and brands.
“It makes me feel sad and worried not only that individuals are capable of lying, deceiving, and making money off patients, but I am also worried for patients,” says Fuller. “Patients are at risk of great harm and negligence if they are the victims of this scheme.”