Medical practitioners are concerned about the rise of fake online doctors in South Africa, with the majority of them using social media platforms to dupe unsuspecting patients.
In a statement yesterday, the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) says the growing number of fraudulent medical practitioners emerging in South Africa of late is cause for concern, and has prompted the crackdown on these individuals who are endangering the lives of patients.
According to the association, over the past three years, 124 fake medical doctors have been arrested around the country, as a result of a campaign led by the HPSCA and the police, with 55 of the apprehensions taking place during the past 24 months.
“The emergence of the large number of unregistered or bogus doctors practising medicine in South Africa is alarming and this type of conduct is putting the health of the public at risk. It is, therefore, encouraging that authorities are bringing these people to book, as they are playing with people’s lives and well-being,” says Thebe Matlhaku, senior underwriter of medical malpractice at ITOO Special Risks.
In several recent high-profile cases, HPCSA’s inspectorate office – created to ensure compliance with the Health Professions Act (Act 56 of 1974), Rules and Regulations – acted against individuals pretending to be medical practitioners ranging from specialists to general practitioners.
Matlhaku says that the rising phenomenon of fake doctors is, in part, driven by the fact that many patients cannot afford expensive private healthcare and are thus preyed upon by bogus physicians offering their services at cheaper rates.
TikTok doc busted
A recent case that garnered considerable media attention is that of a TikTok influencer who called himself Dr Matthew Lani and regularly shared medical advice on the social media platform.
He also claimed to be a graduate of Wits Medical School and an employee of Helen Joseph Hospital, in Johannesburg, gaining unfettered access to the facility.
“Not only did it emerge that he was a fake doctor, but he is also alleged to have assumed the identity of a second-year medical intern employed at a different hospital. The good news is that he is now facing criminal charges filed by the provincial health department and the intern whose identity he stole,” says Matlhaku.
The Gauteng Department of Health yesterday welcomed the capturing of the bogus Lani by security personnel at Helen Joseph Hospital on Sunday night.
According to the department, he was apprehended while entering the main entrance of the facility.
“Lani was caught just before 8pm disguised in a hoodie and wearing a surgical mask with a stethoscope around his neck. He had previously entered the same facility to curate misleading content under the pretence that he was a qualified doctor,” says the department.
“Immediately after being apprehended, Lani requested to go to the bathroom only to attempt to escape by jumping through the bathroom window. When the security realised that he was making a run for it, they called for reinforcement, and he was subsequently apprehended again.”
The police were immediately called, and Lani has since been handed over to the police for an official arrest.
Reports indicate that he will be appearing in court today.
Earlier this month, the SA Medical Association also said it is deeply concerned about the significant risks that fake doctors pose to public health and safety.
It said recent incidents on social media have brought to light the alarming prevalence of individuals falsely representing themselves as qualified medical professionals, endangering the well-being of unsuspecting patients.
Also this month, the University of Limpopo (UL) said it noted with concern claims circulating on social media regarding an individual named Nthabiseng Ramokolo, who can be seen wearing scrubs and a coat bearing the university's name and logo.
This has created the impression that she holds a pharmacy qualification from UL, the varsity said.
“After checking all records, the university would like to state that Nthabiseng Ramokolo is not a UL pharmacy graduate and that she was never a student of the university. Additionally, her claims on social media that she is a master's student at UL are false.”
The executive dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at UL, professor Tebogo Mothiba, said: “The records of the university do not contain any information on Nthabiseng Ramokolo, and our faculty members, as well as current and former students, have confirmed that they have never met her before.”
Pharmacy retail giant Dis-Chem also distanced itself from Ramokolo saying: “We can confirm that we do not have anyone by the name of ‘Nthabiseng Ramokolo’ employed at the Dis-Chem group. We believe the LinkedIn information listed on this profile to be inaccurate.”
Matlhaku points out that in addition to possible criminal charges, there are serious ramifications for individuals posing as medical practitioners, as Section 40 of the Health Professions Act imposes hefty penalties on a medical practitioner who is unregistered in respect of any health profession but pretends to be so.
“The Health Professions Act, 1974 (Act No. 56 of 1974) Section 17 mandates registration with the council as a prerequisite for practising any health profession and failing to register and practising without authorisation constitutes a criminal offence,” says Matlhaku.
“We strongly advise the public to remain vigilant and if you are not certain about a particular medical professional, verify their credentials on the HPCSA’s website. Alternatively, there are also other bodies in South Africa that can verify a medical practitioner’s credentials, such as the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa and the South African Nursing Council."
Matlhaku explains that patients have a right to request that a medical professional verify their credentials should they feel something is amiss, and any suspicious doctor should be reported to the HPCSA.
“There are some red flags that patients can look out for. For example, unregistered or fake doctors typically evade the system by working in cities, and in the private sector, where they are not easily detected. Often, they will either only accept cash payments or work in the practice of a registered doctor,” he says.
“These individuals must be exposed and prevented from practising before they do serious harm. Unfortunately, bogus doctors operate without the necessary qualifications, registrations and ethical standards and can potentially cause very serious harm through misdiagnosis, inappropriate treatments and unregulated procedures.”
Matlhaku adds that continued collaboration among law enforcement agencies, the HPCSA and the public is needed to identify and arrest more people involved in these fraudulent practices to safeguard the welfare of South African communities.