Woman who posed as doctor for more than 20 years defrauding NHS of £1 million jailed

A woman who faked being a doctor for more than 20 years putting a "large number of vulnerable patients at risk" and earning more than £1 million from the NHS has been jailed.

Zholia Alemi, 60, forged documents including a degree certificate, a letter of verification and letters of reference from a hospital in Pakistan, claiming to be a psychiatrist.

After submitting them to the General Medical Council (GMC) in 1995 she was granted permission to work and the fraudster, from Lancashire, then earned between £1 million and £1.3 million from different NHS Trusts around the country.

She practiced in Northern Ireland and Manchester before reaching consultant status in 2003 after passing assessments with the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Alemi was employed as a section 12 practitioner in 2012, giving her authority to section patients.

She worked as a locum consultant at Livewell Southwest, a private hospital for those with learning disabilities in Plymouth, during her 22-year stint in the medical profession.

She was found guilty of 13 counts of fraud, three counts of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, two counts of forgery and two counts of using a false instrument.

Jailing her for seven years at Manchester Crown Court Judge Hilary Manley said the fraudster, who had been able to detain patients against their will and prescribe powerful drugs, moved around the country to different posts to ensure “the finger of suspicion” did not point at her.

She added that the offences “strike so very deeply at the heart of healthcare provisions in this country”.

She said: “That the degree certificate and supporting letter were accepted by the GMC represents an abject failure of scrutiny.

“You benefited from that failure and of course from your own deliberate and calculated dishonesty.”

Zholia Alemi was jailed for seven years. Credit: Cumbria Police

The court heard Alemi was uncovered after concerns were raised by Cumbria Adult Social Care safeguarding leads after attempting to defraud a wealthy 84-year-old client out of £1.3 million by changing her will.

She was charged and convicted of three fraud offences in October 2018, where she was jailed for five years.

The jury in that case was told she forged a will to make herself the beneficiary and forged signatures on applications to hold power of attorney.

Journalist Phil Coleman, chief reporter for Cumbrian Newspapers, began to investigate Alemi further and made enquiries at the University of Auckland, where she claimed to have qualified.

It was then it was discovered she had never qualified as a doctor and had falsified two documents, a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree dated 1992, and a letter of verification supposedly written by the Faculty Registrar.

Following an international investigation led by detectives from Cumbria Police officers searched properties in England and Northern Ireland and seized the forged certificate.

They also discovered a hospital in Pakistan used as a reference by Alemi had never existed.

The court heard once she was registered Alemi worked “more or less continuously” for both NHS trusts and private providers across the UK, earning an estimated £1.3 million.

Christopher Stables KC, prosecuting, who described Alemi as an “accomplished forger”, said it was unclear how old Alemi was as documents had three different dates of birth for her, ranging from 55 to 60.

Francis Fitzgibbons KC, defending, said: “Prison for someone with her characteristics is particularly onerous.”

Alemi, of Plumbe Street in Burnley, was convicted of 13 counts of fraud, three counts of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, two counts of forgery and two counts of using a false instrument after a four-week trial.

Credit: MEN Media

The court was told that without the six years of study to get the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB chB), practitioners cannot legitimately advance further or be regarded as a doctor.

According to official documentation from the University of Auckland, Alemi had enrolled in 1988 and completed her Bachelor of Human Biology degree in May 1992.

She later enrolled on the MB chB and passed the first year, but failed the second and her performance meant she wasn’t allowed to repeat the year or finished the course.

The letter of verification she used was found to have a number of spelling errors, such as ‘Faculty Regitrar’ and ‘varify’.

The supposed author, Susan Cathersides, had also moved to a different post when the document was created.

Judge Manley raised concerns about evidence from a GMC representative during the trial in which the court was told there was a high level of scrutiny of documents.

She said the court was “troubled” by the apparent contradiction over a statement from the GMC which said documents in the 1990s were not subject to the “rigorous scrutiny” now in place.

The judge called for the GMC to conduct a “thorough, open, transparent” inquiry into how the defendant was able to submit “such clearly false documents” and why it took a journalist rather than a professional governing body to uncover the truth.

Following her first conviction, the GMC apologised for “inadequate” checks made in the 1990s and for “any risk arising to patients as a result”.

Una Lane, Director of Registration and Revalidation at the GMC, said: "We are very sorry that Zholia Alemi was able to join our medical register in the 1990s, based on fraudulent documentation, and for any risk arising to patients as a result.

"Our processes are far stronger now, with rigorous testing in place to make sure those joining the register are fit to work in the UK.

"It is clear that in this case the steps taken almost three decades ago were inadequate. We are confident that, 27 years on, our systems are robust.

"Patients deserve good care from appropriately qualified professionals and place a great deal of trust in doctors.

"To exploit that trust and the respected name of the profession is abhorrent."

Detective Superintendent Matt Scott, the senior investigating officer in the case, said: “Alemi is a manipulative criminal who fraudulently obtained a critical health care role which involved important responsibilities about people’s lives – despite never having obtained the most fundamental qualification to start her career."