When Zholia Alemi moved to the UK from New Zealand, she was hopeful that she could secure a good job and make something of her future. Having studied psychiatry at the University of Auckland, Alemi decided not to tell anyone that she dropped out of medical school during her first year.
However, due to lax procedures in the UK when it came to screening foreign doctors at the time, Alemi managed to practice her form of medicine on more than 3,000 unwitting patients, with the majority being the elderly and infirm.
Having dropped out during her first year at University, Alemi moved to the UK for a fresh start. Having registered in 1995, Alemi claimed she had a medical degree from the University of Aukland, but that was a lie. That lie only came out 22 years later when she was convicted of fraud and by that time she had attended to the needs of thousands of patients who thought she was a real doctor.
The blame falls squarely at the feet of The General Medical Council (GMC), which is the main watchdog for doctors in Britain. The GMC has even issued an embarrassed apology, admitting that Alemi and thousands of others have slipped through the net due to poor background checks and massive flaws in procedures. They said they were sorry for “any risk arising to patients as a result” and that it was confident its current processes are “far stronger.”
Ironically, Alemi was only flagged and caught by authorities after she attempted to defraud a dementia patient in her care. She planned to forge the patient’s will and to inherit a portion of her estate as a result. But that plan was stopped in its tracks as authorities began to question Alemi’s qualifications or lack thereof.
Even more shockingly, Alemi worked for years on a full-time basis as a consultant psychiatrist for a dementia service in west Cumbria. At one point she redrafted a patient’s will and fraudulently applied for power of attorney. Her ploy was not a smart one and was easily flagged and directed to the right authority.
When the police interviewed the victim of the fraud attempt, the woman was lucid enough to tell investigators that she felt Alemi was taking her for a ride. When asked whether Alemi had assisted her with her financial affairs she said, “I think she just helped herself,” according to a News and Star report.
Alemi, who was so wealthy she drove a Lotus Elise sports car, was summoned to court before long to explain her illegal actions. Judge James Adkin, who presided over the case, described her as “wicked” and she was found guilty by that judge at the Carlisle Crown Court and jailed for five years. She had already lost her job in 2016 and was suspended by the medical tribunal service in 2017.
When the GMC was asked how it was possible that Alemi ever became a doctor in the UK despite not having any qualifications, they said it was to do with the UK’s medical register under a section of the Medical Act. Alemi slipped through the net of an already failing system which failed to check the qualifications of doctors for years.
The difficulty arose due to the act’s provision for immigrants to the UK from Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand. Such applicants were entitled to join the register on the basis of the qualification they obtained back home but much of the system was simply run on trust and was understaffed in any event.
Applicants from Commonwealth countries didn’t even need to sit the standard two-part medical exam for foreign doctors when they arrived. As a result of cases like these and countless others, the GMC has now put in place more rigorous checks and can identify any fraudulent applicants to the register. However, in many cases, the damage has already been done.
As a result of the controversial and highly sensitive Alemi case, up to 3,000 Commonwealth doctors working in the UK are under urgent review by the GMC. Meanwhile, the chief executive of GMC, Charlie Massey, told reporters that the issue is a “serious” one and has been referred to the police as well as to NHS England.
The debacle has left egg on the faces of many people involved at the executive level, although the various health authorities say they’re confident that the system is now robust enough to stop further fraudulent cases like this from occurring in the future. “We are confident that, 23 years on, our systems are robust and would identify any fraudulent attempt to join the medical register,” said Massey.
While the GMC confirmed that they were aware that their patients put their trust in them to endure the doctors that treat them are qualified, a Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman spoke about following the Alemi conviction. “As the organization responsible for regulating doctors, we expect the GMC to investigate how this criminal was able to register as a doctor and put measures in place to make sure it can’t happen again,” she said.
When Alemi arrived in the UK, she was accused of forging documents to be able to work as a doctor. She provided both a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery certificate from the University of Aukland when she arrived, but those documents turned out to be false. Alemi then went on to exploit the British medical system to her benefit and earned well from it.
Having tricked authorities easily and without too much effort, Alemi worked as a psychiatrist for the UK’s National Health Service treating thousands of patients over the years. On top of that, Alemi was a good earner, netting roughly $188,000 in annual salary despite having no qualifications or experience.
In one of Alemi’s since-deleted social media profiles, she described herself: “I am a retired psychiatrist and a member of the London Royal College of Psychiatrists with a special interest in developmental conditions such as Asperger’s,” she wrote. But the GMC is now urging all patients who were treated by Alemi to come forward immediately and identify themselves.
Massey told reporters that the process is now far stronger and is supposed to be watertight. “Our processes are far stronger now, with rigorous testing in place to ensure those joining the register are fit to work in the UK,” he said. “It is clear that in this case the steps taken in the 1990s were inadequate and we apologize for any risk arising to patients as a result.”
According to a personal assistant of Alemi, Claire Wilkinson, who worked alongside her in Plymouth in 2014 and 2015, Alemi was obsessed with money. Wilkinson told the press that she tried to raise concerns about Alemi’s “bizarre actions” on many occasions but to no avail. She spoke about how Alemi was “money driven” and overly obsessed with “wealth.”
Wilkinson also told Plymouth Live that Alemi had many boyfriends, and that her intentions with them were quite clear. “She was very money driven; she lived for money. She would only find the wealthy men attractive – even if they weren’t attractive,” she said. “She went for wealth and hierarchy.”
The troubling case highlights the risk that patients face in the UK due to poor processes and a lack of proper checks at the medical level. Many feel that five years isn’t enough for Alemi, as Judge Adkin said following sentencing: “This was despicable, cruel criminality motivated by pure greed and you must be severely punished for it.”
Even politicians in the UK have become involved in the Alemi case. John Woodcock, independent MP for Barrow and Furness, said the case was “hugely alarming,” adding, “If this had been one individual that had slipped through the net it would have been concerning, but the idea that it could be a systemic loophole that has been exploited is hugely alarming. … It is understandable that patients are calling for an inquiry – this is of sufficient magnitude.”