Hospitals on alert for patient's hoax calls

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Hospitals across Britain have been put on alert for a patient posing as a doctor who has disrupted medical services out of revenge for what he claims is his own past poor treatment.

Hospitals across Britain have been put on alert for a patient posing as a doctor who has disrupted medical services out of revenge for what he claims is his own past poor treatment.

The unidentified man has made hoax telephone calls to almost every big hospital in the country, claiming to be a doctor with a seriously ill epileptic patient needing admission.

The hospitals he has contacted have made elaborate arrangements to deal with the emergency - clearing intensive care beds, organising staff and placing doctors on standby, only to find the "patient" never turns up. In some cases, specialists have been called into the hospital in the middle of the night to deal with an "emergency."

Now four neurologists have written to The Lancet, warning their colleagues of the man, who they say is suffering from "Munchausen by phone". Munchausen's syndrome is a psychiatric condition in which patients injure themselves or fake illness to gain medicalattention.

The man began to have daily epileptic fits when he was 17. Over a three-month period, he was admitted 30 times to 11 different intensive care wards, apparently suffering from status epilepticus, a potentially fatal form of epileptic attack. But doctors became convinced he was simulating the attacks when they found him studying medical textbooks on epilepsy. He had also stolen and altered his medical charts.

Earlier this year he started phoning hospitals, posing as a doctor and claiming to have a patient in status epilepticus who needed an emergencyadmission.

Over eight months, every big hospital with a neurology department received hoax calls. Emergency rooms and intensive care beds were cleared, blocking them for other patients, while doctors waited for an ambulance that never arrived. The man convinced medical staff he was genuine by using jargon such as oxygen sats, gases, bicarb and benzos.

He was not caught until a doctor who had previously treated him for his apparent epilepsy recognised him from his telephone voice. The man admitted responsibility after being played a tape recording of one of his calls. He claimed he had made them "to repay doctors for the way in which they treated him during his admissions".

Doctors have warned him that he will be reported to the police if he makes further calls but the neurologists doubt that he will keep to his promise of co-operation. "We suspect the prognosis is poor", they write.

They add: "Physicians have to be aware they may be the target of hoax telephone calls. They may consider ringing a suspect caller back."

The letter was initially refused for publication by the British Medical Journal because of fears that it breached patient confidentiality. However, The Lancet agreed to publish it on the basis that there was a clear public interest in alerting hospitals to the potential threat.

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