The General Medical Council (‘GMC’) is urgently checking the qualifications of foreign doctors who were able to register in the UK under a now defunct provision in the Medical Act 1983 (‘the Act’).
Zholia Alemi (‘ZA’) registered with the GMC in 1995 with a primary medical qualification from the University of Auckland. She practised as a psychiatrist in the UK for 22 years until June 2017. Her most recent was as Consultant Psychiatrist at Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (‘the Trust’).
Whilst working at the Trust, ZA attempted to defraud a vulnerable patient by redrafting her will and applying for a power of attorney. Subsequently, ZA was arrested in 2016 for fraud and theft, and she was suspended from the medical register on 23 June 2017.
She was found guilty of all charges following a week-long trial at Carlisle Crown Court; specifically in respect of four fraud and theft charges. She was sentenced to five years imprisonment in October 2018. Following her conviction, a Cumbrian newspaper launched an investigation and discovered that her qualifications were false as she had failed to complete her first year of medical school.
How did she become a doctor?
At the time, ZA was able to join the medical register under a provision in the Act, which has not been in force since 2003. The provision enabled foreign doctors from certain Commonwealth countries to obtain registration based on their qualifications. This in turn meant that medical graduates from these countries, including ZA’s native New Zealand, did not have to sit and pass the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board test (‘PLAB’).
The PLAB test is used to ensure that doctors who qualified aboard have the requisite knowledge and skills to practise medicine in the UK. Due to the exception in the Act, this extra method of checking was bypassed when ZA registered with the GMC.
What’s happening now?
In light of this case, the GMC is now investigating 3,000 doctors who were able to register in the UK under the same provision. In a statement on the GMC’s website, the Chief Executive, Charlie Massey acknowledged that “steps taken in the 1990s were inadequate” and he has apologised “for any risk arising to patients as a result”. He emphasised that the GMC’s “systems are robust and would identify any fraudulent attempt to join the medical register”.
ZA is an outlier, as the overwhelmingly majority of overseas doctors applying for registration and a license to practise with the GMC not only have the requisite knowledge and skill, but are pioneers in their respective fields. It should also be noted that the checks being made by the GMC are as a precaution, there is no indication that any of the other doctors who registered in this manner are a cause for concern.
The GMC’s processes have changed over the years; the introduction of revalidation being one of them. Cases such as this are unlikely to be repeated in future, which is of course to the benefit and safety of patients, as well as the profession as a whole.