KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — In a nationwide crackdown on medical charlatans, Nepalese police have arrested 53 people for allegedly working as doctors with fake credentials or false education certificates and said Monday that more suspects would be arrested this week.
Weekend raids at reputed hospitals, health clinics and medical schools across the Himalayan nation ended with police handcuffing 36 white-coated men and women and taking them away while patients and medical staff looked on.
Another 17 had been arrested in February when authorities began the investigation, called "Operation Quack."
The suspects — believed to have presented phony practicing licenses or fake medical degrees when applying for work — are being charged with forgery and face up to five years in prison if convicted, according to Central Investigation Bureau official Dibesh Lohani.
While a group representing Nepalese doctors protested the indignity of the raids, patients said they were appalled and angry about the scandal — even afraid in seeking treatment after learning that some doctors had been entrusted to practice medicine despite not meeting the training requirements.
"These people should be given the maximum punishment," said Kusholal Achame, who was waiting Monday to have a doctor review his latest laboratory reports at Kathmandu's popular Bir Hospital.
Another patient at Bir, visibly shaken by the scandal, also said the bogus doctors should be prosecuted.
"They may not care, but it has put a lot of people at risk," said Lal Bahadur Pandey, a 68-year-old retired policeman now suffering from kidney problems. "These types of doctors need to be picked out and punished."
Nepal has long had a deficit of doctors, with just 17,000 trained and qualified for the whole country, or just one doctor for every 1,700 people. As a result, many who live in remote areas or who cannot afford access to medical care still rely on traditional healers or village quacks.
The idea that some hospital doctors would be working without the right paperwork did not surprise some doctors, who said the high demand had led many to cut corners.
"Now there are so many doctors, and many new hospitals which are desperate to hire doctors," said Dr. Kiran Shrestha, who practices in Kathmandu and was not being investigated by police. "The process of screening these new doctors and their medical degrees is weak."
The investigation was being conducted by the country's Central Investigation Bureau in league with the Education Board and the Nepal Medical Council, the regulatory agency responsible for conducting qualifying tests and issuing licenses to practice medicine.
The umbrella body representing the country's doctors, called the Nepal Medical Association, condemned the way the allegedly fake doctors were "treated like criminals" even though they had been cleared by regulatory authorities to practice.
"These doctors were providing services only after getting a license from the Nepal Medical Council. But they were arrested and humiliated like they were common criminals," said the association's head, Dr. Muktiram Shrestha. Instead, he said, they should have been asked to come in for questioning in the investigation.
"They were treated like terrorists being arrested. It was humiliating not just for these people, but for all the doctors," he said.
Dozens of doctors protested Sunday in Birgunj, a town along the Indian border, demanding their colleagues be released. The association also said it was asking all of its members — regardless of suspicion — to submit their licenses for verification.
"The only way to regain the trust of the people is to get all the doctors recertified," Shrestha said.