The headline on my Yahoo homepage this morning read: “Pilot duped AMA with fake M.D. claim”. I don’t normally read more than the headlines (too depressing) but this one hooked me. The first three paragraphs read as follows:“He seemed like Superman, able to guide jumbo jets through perilous skies and tiny tubes through blocked arteries. As a cardiologist and United Airlines captain, William Hamman taught doctors and pilots ways to keep hearts and planes from crashing. He shared millions in grants, had university and hospital posts, and bragged of work for prestigious medical groups. An Associated Press story featured him leading a teamwork training session at an American College of Cardiology convention last spring. But it turns out Hamman isn’t a cardiologist or even a doctor. The AP found he had no medical residency, fellowship, doctoral degree or the 15 years of clinical experience he claimed. He attended medical school for a few years but withdrew and didn’t graduate.”
Pretty amazing. A case of everyone assuming someone else had checked his credentials. But that part isn’t what really intrigued me. Hamman didn’t actually operate on or deal with patients. What he taught other doctors was how to improve their ER and operating room results by working as a team and by having better communication with the patient before operating. He taught pilots (he is an actual pilot) how to successfully deal with sick passengers, and by all accounts he was great at it.“Doctors who worked with the 58-year-old pilot are stunned, not just at the ruse and how long it lasted, but also because many of them valued his work and were sad to see it end. ‘I was shocked to hear the news,’ said Dr. W. Douglas Weaver, who was president of the cardiology group when it gave Hamman a training contract for up to $250,000 plus travel a few years ago. ‘He was totally dedicated to what he was doing, and there is a real need for team-based education in medicine,’ said Weaver, a pilot himself from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.”
Of course, now that the truth is out, Hamman is actively being discredited, although students who took his courses will keep the credits they earned in those courses. The director of the Accreditation Council calls those who learned from Hamman “victims”. Because he never treated patients and didn’t teach actual operating methods,“He really didn’t need to be a physician to do what he was doing. He could have been successful without titling himself,” said Weaver of the cardiology college. “He made a very serious mistake.”
I’ve been thinking about this article all day. Of course I would never condone lying on such a grand scale (or at all), but I question the validity of the last quote from the article. Could Hamman in fact have done what he did if everyone knew he was not a doctor? He certainly would not have been allowed to videotape inside operating theaters. And how many hospitals would have hired him to work with their residents on bedside manner and teamwork skills in the ER if he was just some med-school dropout? Doctors who knew him admired his dedication and his skill. It doesn’t sound like he was victimizing anyone in the way of giving them bogus or incorrect information. What they got was valid, and valuable. They just didn’t get it from an actual cardiologist.
I think this article says a lot about our blind faith in titles and degrees and the belief that only those people who hold them are worthy of teaching others. Hamman understood this, and used it to his advantage for a long time. He knew that he wouldn’t be given the time of day, or millions of dollars in grants to work with, if he didn’t have that PhD and MD after his name. I am not condoning his behavior, but I do feel that he is not completely to blame. We are a society entrenched in the belief that you cannot possibly be good or worthy without a degree to back you up. This belief so blinds us that in many fields we hire incompetent people just because they hold a degree, and ignore capable people because they do not. (I admit that I’d prefer an MD to have actually attended medical school, but I’ve met some doctors with the bedside manner of a rock. Doesn’t matter as long as they’ve got that framed document on the wall.) This emphasis on degrees continues despite the fact that many college grads cannot find work in their chosen field, and that entrepreneurs, many of whom dropped out of college, are often the most successful and most satisfied.
Could Hamman have taken a different route? Sure he could. He could have started a consulting business for the airlines – he was already a pilot after all – but it would have been an uphill battle. Who would believe that a dropout could have anything to teach about dealing with patients? Medical doctors tend to be a rather arrogant bunch – the God complex and all – and I think they would have seen taking instruction from Hamman as beneath them. And other pilots? I can see them thinking, ‘who is this guy to teach us about how to deal with a sick passenger? He’s just a pilot like me.’
I don’t have a nice neat conclusion on this one. I can’t condone Hamman’s deception, but on one level I understand it.