William Hamman: Wisconsin's flying fake cardiologist sailed past many who easily could have caught him
How did William Hamman, the United Airlines pilot who faked being a cardiologist, get away with it?
By speaking with authority and knowing that nobody, including the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board, was going to bother to fact-check his résumé.
Hamman, 58, did have a license to fly. But he did not have a medical degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as he had claimed, nor any certification in cardiology. Marilynn Marchione at the Associated Press reported that he had been faking his cardiology credentials, prompting a lot of powerful people to say, basically, "He seemed so smart."
Well, smart doesn't give you the right to practice on people. And he could have been stopped a lot sooner. Here is a list of all the different organizations that could have and should have checked Hamman's credentials:
1. Western Michigan University. Hamman worked there as co-director of its Center of Excellence for Simulation Research. According to the Detroit Free Press, Hamman helped land millions of dollars in research grants for Western and by training medical staff in simulated medical exercises.
2. The U.S. Department of Defense. One of those grants apparently came from the Defense Department, and if the Pentagon can't check people's credentials with ease, we're all in trouble.
3. Quality Management in Health Care, the American Journal of Medical Quality, and other journals. Any journal that published a paper from a fake MD has itself to blame for not checking credentials. Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch reported:
We contacted the editors of the five journals where Hamman published. Jean Gayton Carroll, editor in chief of Quality Management in Health Care, tells Retraction Watch that the journal is "reviewing and evaluating" a paper it published earlier this year, "Using in situ simulation to identify and resolve latent environmental threats to patient safety: case study involving operational changes in a labor and delivery ward."
The American Journal of Medical Quality later told Oransky it would "amend the paper to correct" Hamman's credentials.
4. The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACER) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC). Hamman had given training talks to ER doctors. Scary. He also spoke last year at an ACC convention. Pause to think about that. This non-cardiologist, non-doctor has been a featured speaker, giving cardiologists advice about how they should treat patients. Worse yet, as Marc Abrahams noted on Improbable Research, Hamman was touted as the rainmaker for $150,000 in grant funding from the American College of Cardiology last year.
5. The American Medical Association (AMA). He had been invited to speak at AMA events in the past. And, as Marchione noted, "Even after learning of Hamman's deception, the American Medical Association was going to let him lead a seminar that had been in the works, altering his biography and switching his title from "Dr." to "Captain" on course materials. It was canceled after top officials found out." Who else at these AMA conventions has been allowed to put on a charade for their audience of eager medical professionals?
6. The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME). An ACCME spokesman told Marchione that the council would not revoke any education credits that doctors earned when taking continuing medical education classes with Hamman. I should hope not, because the ACCME is at fault, too. They are the ones who ultimately decide which credits count, and they could have checked Hamman's credentials.
7. The Federal Aviation Administration. From Marchione's story: "As long ago as 1992, an FAA workshop listed Hamman as an M.D. from United's flight center in Denver." The FAA could have avoided this fabrication with a single phone call to the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners. An M.D. based in Denver? He better have a state license.
8. The Associated Press, Cath Lab Digest, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Medical Device Daily, the Kalamazoo Gazette and other media outlets. Marchione interviewed Hamman for an April 2010 article, ironically titled "Check Your Doctor's Expiration Date," in which she wrote about a real cardiologist, Dr. Brandon Meester, who was trained by Hamman in a session where doctors "played "beat the clock" to do an artery-opening procedure within 90 minutes of a mock patient arriving at a hospital. This session, which Mester took, was led by Dr. William Hamman, a Michigan cardiologist and United Airlines pilot." As an airline captain, everything I do is performance-based," with frequent testing on simulators of landings, takeoffs and other skills, Hamman said." Good for Marchione for setting the record straight. Other outlets haven't been so self-effacing. In an interview last year, the Cath Lab Digest reporter repeated Hamman's lies by saying, "You have been a pilot for thirty years and a clinician for fifteen years." Hamman, loving the spotlight, said, "I couldn't handle a cardiology practice full-time. What I have been able to weave together, which I very much enjoy, is specialty projects or research in healthcare along with my flight schedule."Why would a medical specialty publication not make sure that a doctor had all the credentials he was claiming? Everyone who has helped Hamman in his fakery needs to publish a clarification for their audience.
Other outlets haven't been so self-effacing. In an interview last year, the Cath Lab Digest reporter repeated Hamman's lies by saying, "You have been a pilot for thirty years and a clinician for fifteen years." Hamman, loving the spotlight, said, "I couldn't handle a cardiology practice full-time. What I have been able to weave together, which I very much enjoy, is specialty projects or research in healthcare along with my flight schedule."Why would a medical specialty publication not make sure that a doctor had all the credentials he was claiming? Everyone who has helped Hamman in his fakery needs to publish a clarification for their audience.
9. United Airlines. The airline seems to have been given a pass in most of the media coverage of Hamman, with the assumption being that officials there wouldn't have needed to check medical credentials to allow him to fly. As Hamman told Cath Lab Digest, "I was never an active physician for United Airlines; however, because I was a physician, I think it opened up some doors at United, and I ended up as manager of quality and risk assessment." Those at United who were impressed with Hamman's degree should have checked it as carefully as they presumably did his flying credentials.
10. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The group gave Hamman and his colleagues at Western a $2.8 million grant in 2005 to expand flight simulation training into medical settings. "Matching funds from other groups brought the total to $4.2 million," Marchione wrote. Reporters in Michigan need to get their hands on those grant applications and see how "Dr. Hamman's" supposed medical expertise was used in luring that cash.
11. LUMEN, the symposium for optimal treatments in myocardial infarction. Marchione reported: "Hamman had led sessions in 2009 and earlier this year" at LUMEN. Hamman "seemed to understand the jobs of the EMS, emergency room and cardiac catheterization lab staffs and how they needed to work together," Dr. Sameer Mehta, a Miami cardiologist who runs LUMEN, told Marchione.
12. William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Hamman was hired to work there as an educator and researcher in 2009, but nobody apparently thought to check his licensing. When he applied for a grant, though, someone on the staff at Beaumont finally did check, according to Marchione's story. The Detroit Free Press and other outlets have reported that the staff person contacted the University of Wisconsin -Madison and found out that, no, he was not an MD. Hamman resigned quietly in June. United Airlines somehow heard about his lack of a degree and stopped him from flying in August. Four months later, Marchione's story broke, and now everyone else knows the truth, too.
13. The Wisconsin Board of Medical Examiners. Antidote has seen the board take tough action on people who lie. In May 2009, the board revoked the license of a doctor with a pattern of overprescribing drugs who claimed that his girlfriend had ordered painkillers and other drugs without his knowledge and had them shipped to his office. The board can also take more limited disciplinary actions. In Hamman, the board has someone who claimed to have earned his MD from the University of Wisconsin. He has been making this claim for years, and it was the University of Wisconsin who finally set the record straight.
It is impossible to know for certain, but Antidote is willing to bet that at some point in Hamman's career, someone has called the Wisconsin board to ask about the doctor's degree. Like the AMA, they may have decided to just keep quiet about what they found and allow Hamman to change his title to "Captain" for the purposes of a seminar or grant application, but if the inquiry was made, the board knew. And now, the board knows for certain. So what will the board do now? Antidote will be checking the board's site regularly. Fortunately for patients in Wisconsin, the board's site is relatively easy to use and full of details. It includes records going back to 1977, although there are gaps in the history, and it allows consumers to download everything they would want to know about a doctor's disciplinary record for free with a few clicks.
The Hamman case is an embarrassment for the medical profession and for the media. And it is a reminder that you can never take for granted that those two letters before someone's name - "Dr." - actually mean something.