On February 16, 2016, police in West Palm Beach, Florida arrested Malachi Love-Robinson, 18, for allegedly setting up a medical practice, posing as a doctor, and examining patients without a medical license. Amazingly, this was not the first time the teen had been arrested for operating without a medical license. On his website, Love-Robinson listed his qualifications to provide psychotherapy, phototherapy, electrotherapy, and physiotherapy, among many other professional services; however, licenses or certifications to provide such services were never disclosed.
It is frightening to consider that the person you turn to for physical or mental health care may not be who they say they are, let alone able to safely and effectively perform the procedures they say they can.
This sensational story sounds like just that, a story; however, stories of actual health professionals acting outside of their scope of competence occur only too often. As can be seen on popular cosmetic surgery shows such as E!’s Botched and Lifetime’s Atlanta Plastic, it is not uncommon for individuals to discover their health professional was incompetent or unqualified to perform a medical procedure. Unfortunately, this discovery typically happens after a surgical or cosmetic procedure has taken place and the person is left with a physical or psychological issue. Afterward, the person discovers their doctor was not a specialist, not licensed, or worse yet, not a doctor at all.
On reality television and with the Love-Robinson case, it is easy to blame victims for placing themselves in situations that caused physical or mental harm. In regard to Love-Robinson, social media posts have commented, “They (patients) should have known he wasn’t a real doctor by how young he looked” and “I congratulate the young man; it’s the patients’ own faults if they fell for it.” In hindsight, it is always easier to judge things differently, to believe all the information we know now was obvious in the beginning. But the reality is, when people visit health professionals, they typically trust them to be credible, vetted, and experts.
Many (perhaps even most) of us do not take time to really explore who our health professionals are. How much time did you spend investigating your primary care doctor before your first visit? When you were referred to a specialist, how much effort did you expend in reviewing their credentials? When you found a therapist, did you ask questions to determine the best fit or did you schedule with the first person who returned your phone call?
How much time did you spend investigating your primary care doctor before your first visit? When you were referred to a specialist, how much effort did you expend in reviewing their credentials? When you found a therapist, did you ask questions to determine the best fit or did you schedule with the first person who returned your phone call?
Additionally, unethical health professionals may target vulnerable populations, including individuals with low socioeconomic status, ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. We have seen this with the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Syphilis Study at Tuskegee in which African-American research participants were purposely left untreated for syphilis despite there being a cure for the disease (Northridge, 2011); the continued practice in some states of conversion therapy, which attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, even with research indicating such practices cause psychological harm (APA, 2015); or the St. Louis Veterans Affairs dental clinic exposing more than 1,800 veterans to HIV and hepatitis. Subjugation to societal discrimination or biases can leave vulnerable populations feeling powerless to assert their rights or question those in positions of power.
It is not helpful to blame the victims when health-related crimes or injustices occur, as it is possible that any of us could be misled by a seemingly legitimate professional. Having said that, there are steps we can take to educate ourselves as consumers and to investigate the credentials of health professionals.
Consider the following:
- State licensure boards license health care professionals. A simple web search of your state’s licensure board can provide you with information regarding the status of a health professional’s license. Seeking a psychologist? Visit The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards to find your state’s licensure board.
- Health care professionals may be members of national or state associations. For example, your medical doctor may be a member of the American Medical Association, or your psychologist a member of the American Psychological Association. Membership can lend greater credibility and can alert you to ethical standards your health professional is expected to maintain.
- Complaints regarding ethical violations, misconduct, or fraud can be filed through your health professional’s state licensure board or professional membership organization. You can also review any previous complaints regarding your health care professional by contacting state licensure and professional membership bodies.
- If your health professional has certifications, you can check with the certifying organization to verify the certificate. For example, if it is important that your couples counselor is Gottman-trained, you can review therapists through the Gottman Institute website.
- Research and publications are not necessary for a health professional to be skilled and competent in their field. In fact, many health professionals are so involved with their clinical work that they do not have the time or interest to engage in research. For those health professionals who do, exploring their research and publications can help gauge your health professional’s level of expertise in a particular area.
- Don’t wait for health professionals to reveal themselves to you. Ask your provider questions to ensure they are the best match for you. This includes asking questions about the provider’s education, expertise, and training. If you don’t feel comfortable with the provider’s answers, find someone else.
- American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people. American Psychologist, 70 (9), 832-864.
- Northridge, M. (2011). Toward the ethical conduct of science and a socially just world. In R. Katz & R. Warren (Eds.), The search for the legacy of the USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee (pp. 49–58). New York, NY: Lexington.
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