“He’d been practicing successfully for a long time but was caught out on a paperwork technicality,” explains Sefton. “He didn’t have the right qualifications. It happens more you’d think..”
The phenomenon intrigued Sefton. Now, two years after that particular doctor Levon Mkhitarian was jailed, the 45-year-old has made it the centre of his new BBC drama, Trust Me. The four-part psychological thriller, which started last week, stars Jodie Whittaker as a nurse who is sacked for whistleblowing and steals the identity of her best friend: an A&E doctor.
“I’ve always found it interesting,” says Sefton, who, while working as a medical registrar, wrote ITV’s Good Karma Hospital and Sky series Delicious. “I was looking for a fresh idea for a drama, and this came up. I’ve never seen it portrayed on TV before.”
Very few impostors are caught because they are terrible. They’re caught through paperwork or bad luck. Some are very successful
It’s a case of life being stranger than fiction. People do get away with assuming false identities in medicine - and have done for centuries.
Sefton mentions the case of Dr James Barry, a Victorian surgeon who saved numerous lives and was the first British doctor to perform a Caesarean. It was only following Barry’s death, after 46 years of practicing, that it was discovered he was actually a she.
Women weren’t legally allowed to enrol in medical school at that time, so Margaret Bulkley, a shopkeeper’s daughter, had stolen her uncle’s identity and lived her entire adult life posing as a male doctor.
It is a remarkable story, but not one limited to the nineteenth century. Incidents of fake identities and falsified qualifications have been occuring on NHS wards ever since. But often, says Sefton, it is less dangerous that one might assume.
“Very few impostors are caught because they are terrible,” he says. “They’re caught through paperwork or bad luck. Some are actually very successful. Your first thought is that it’s risky, but actually they’re often more conscientious.”
The law, of course, doesn’t take this into account. Mkhitarian stole the identity of a real medic and convinced five NHS trusts, a charity and a private medical centre that he was registered to practice. The medical graduate from Georgia - who was only qualified to work as a trainee - created a fictitious CV, bank statements and even a letter purporting to be from a medical surgery.
He was found out after trying to obtain a hospital security pass in the name of the genuine doctor, and handed a six year prison sentence after pleading guilty to 22 counts of fraud and deception. Other such cases have seen ‘fake doctors’ jailed for up to 5 years, while some have been deported.
In Trust Me, Whittaker’s transition from nurse to doctor is absolutely plausible, says Sefton. “The culture of medicine lets you join in, and junior doctors are expected to not know stuff. You’re constantly learning on the job. It’s very possible to fake it until you make it.
As a doctor you get access to emotionally vulnerable people - you get an understanding of what humans are really like
“On the flipside, there are bad doctors who are fully qualified but aren’t caught out straightaway. They are tolerated and worked around. I’ve been told to keep an eye on someone and watch what they’re doing, after it’s known they’ve made errors”.
Sefton, who lives in Somerset with his wife Louise, a fellow doctor, and their three daughters, never expected to become a screenwriter. He studied medicine in the hope that five years at university would help him figure out what he wanted to do, and began his career in the mid Nineties, aged 23. It was only aged 30 and working at University College Hospital, that he was inspired to take a screenwriting course and realised he had a talent.
A conversation with a friend who worked on BBC soap Doctors, saw him given the opportunity to write an episode. From there, his career took off, and he eventually decided to put medicine on hold.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “My wife was really supportive, as she was the breadwinner for quite a long time,” he says. “Now the roles are reserved, so it’s payback time. The great thing about still being a doctor is that I have never been as skint as most writers.”
After writing successfully for several years, Sefton decided to return to medicine part-time, and now works on an A&E ward in Somerset. “I combine the two,” he says. “I don’t have any management responsibility - I just do the pure job. It’s challenging, but you get to leave your work there when you go home.”
It also gives him a unique insight into the human condition, something invaluable for screenwriting. Sefton admits: “As a doctor you get access to emotionally vulnerable people and they tell you things - you get an understanding of what humans are really like.”
He hopes Trust Me will offer a rare insight into the reality of an A&E ward and how doctors behave behind the scenes. “I think it’s close to the truth. If you want to know what it’s really like, watch.”
Trust Me continues on Tuesday August 15 at 9pm on BBC One.