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Sunday, 26 November, 2000, 01:21 GMT
'Fake doctor factory' awards degrees
By BBC Radio 5 Live's Matthew Chapman
A narrow door with peeling paint sandwiched in between a hairdresser's and a café is hardly the sort of entrance you might expect for an internationally renowned hospital.
Uncharacteristically for a self-styled teaching hospital it has long preferred to remain anonymous in this country, yet spread its reputation across the globe as a provider of doctors to America and third world countries.
For nearly two decades this "hospital" has been run in tandem with another educational establishment, the Metropolitan Collegiate Institute.
While the institute has been qualifying medical doctors, the hospital has been providing them with much needed practical experience.
The fact is that neither exists, except on paper and as names on mail boxes dotted around the capital.
It is only now emerging that for years these two organisations have been operating - unhindered - in London and it is claimed that the Department of Education was repeatedly warned about them.
The graduates of these centres have gone out to practise their meagre skills and - in at least one known case - wreak havoc by maiming and exploiting sick and frail patients in the West Indies and America.
Investigators in the United States recently began to unravel the full story of what has been described as a British "fake doctor factory", following the arrest of one of its most prolific alumni.
Gregory Caplinger's 60-page curriculum vitae was undoubtedly impressive to the long list of employers and patients across America who were taken in by this charismatic man with a penchant for white coats and stethoscopes.
A woman had come to him worried about a small area of discoloration on the skin of her hands and Dr Caplinger performed a cursory test which involved him pricking her hand with a pin.
Soon after he told her she had a particularly virulent form of cancer and would die soon unless she allowed him to help her.
The woman gave up her job and paid Dr Caplinger thousands of dollars for treatment, but with no improvement.
It subsequently turned out that her skin condition was nothing more than a reaction to the nail glue she used as a manicurist.
Dr Caplinger was eventually charged with practising medicine without a licence and was fined $500 (approximately £356), the maximum allowed by state law.
With the help of investment from fellow employees at another medical centre where he worked - he moved to the Dominican Republic where he set up the British West Indies Medical College.
He was left pretty much up to his own devices by the authorities and began experimenting on patients with what he claimed to be a patented drug of his own invention which could cure several forms of cancer and even Aids.
He lured two Alzheimer's disease patients over from Florida and almost killed one when her arm blew up to an enormous size after an injection.
Move to teaching
As his confidence in his surroundings grew Dr Caplinger moved from treating patients to teaching.
He persuaded prospective medical students to come over from the US and gain training and qualifications, which, he told them, were acceptable back in the States.
"The whole place was very strange," recalls Dr David Glassman, an Arizona-based medic, who arrived as an interested student yet left within days, appalled at what he saw.
"The first time I saw Caplinger he was preceded into the room by two giant bodyguards, both carrying guns. He was paranoid that people were out to kill him."
The whole episode reached a perhaps inevitably tragic conclusion when Dr Caplinger gave one of the college's own degrees to a business partner who went on to treat patients.
The man persuaded the mother of a diabetic eight-year-old girl to take her daughter off insulin and she died.
Assaults on patients
Yet it was not his assaults on patients that really brought his career to a premature end.
Dr Caplinger set up a company to market his "wonder drug" and persuaded several investors to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
After the scheme collapsed a year ago, the FBI began to investigate and so began to unravel the curious background of Dr Caplinger and how exactly he had got his qualifications.
They asked a detective from the Metropolitan Police to take a tour around the London addresses mentioned on Dr Caplinger's CV in Kensington, Finchley and Turnham Green and he reported back that he had found a mail drop business at every one.
Because all the FBI wanted was verification that the institutions were fake no effort was made to find those actually behind the scheme.
One man who is not surprised by the apparent lack of enthusiasm by the authorities here to get to the bottom of this scam is John Bear, the San Francisco based publisher of a guide to higher education.
Widely acknowledged to be a world authority on distance learning, Mr Bear acts as an expert witness for the FBI on trials involving so called diploma mills where degrees are sold for cash.
He first came across the Metropolitan Collegiate Institute in 1974 and says he immediately alerted the British government.
"I have written over a dozen letters to the Department of Education about my concerns but they don't seem interested," he said.
"The only reply I got back was a very snotty one from a civil servant in the early 90s saying that there were no diploma mills in the United Kingdom.
"I had this fantasy where Margaret Thatcher was travelling somewhere remote and was taken ill.
"The only doctor they could find was trained by the Metropolitan Collegiate Institute. I think they would have taken notice then."
How many more?
Perhaps of most concern to medical authorities around the world should be just how many so-called doctors this scam has produced.
The FBI is certain that Dr Caplinger was by no means the only graduate.
Among their evidence is a letter from a man in Papua New Guinea to the Institute's then Baker Street address, asking if it was now all right for him to call himself a doctor after receiving a degree from there.
"Sussex General and Metropolitan we know were running for nearly two decades," says agent Julia Muller.
"I don't doubt there are others in practice around the world with qualifications from these places."
John Bear claims that even a cautious estimate produces some frightening projections.
"The institute was taking out large adverts in respected newspapers and magazines throughout the 70s and 80s," he said.
"They would have got hundreds if not thousands of replies to these adverts. What are all these people doing now?"
The companies named by the FBI as operating the mail forwarding businesses for Sussex General Hospital and Metropolitan Collegiate Institute cite client confidentiality as a reason for staying quiet about who really runs these fronts.
Dr Caplinger's medical career however appeared to have come to an end when he stood trial this summer and was found guilty of several charges of fraud related to his attempt to gain investment for his "miracle cancer therapy".
The judge granted him bail.
One lunch-hour Dr Caplinger slipped out of the court and has not been seen since - an action that has earned him a place on the FBI's most wanted list.
"I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Caplinger," says agent Muller.
Matthew Chapman's documentary Degrees of Uncertainty can be heard on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 26 November at 1200 GMT.
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