‘Attention seekers’ who pretend to be ill are costing the NHS £1.7million a year, official figures reveal.
The number of hospital beds taken up by patients with fake disorders has more than trebled in the past decade, according to NHS Digital statistics. Each faker is estimated to cost the NHS between £800 to £900 a day.
Experts believe the problem is driven by ‘Dr Google’ as people can readily access medical information to fool doctors into believing they are unwell.
Nearly 100 people were treated for Munchausen’s syndrome by the NHS between 2015 and 2016, resulting in a cumulative 1,966 days in hospital, figures add. Munchausen’s syndrome is a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be ill.
Syndrome sufferers are thought to experience an adrenaline rush from being the centre of attention, with some even resorting to injecting themselves with faeces or rubbing chemicals on their skin to create symptoms.
‘Attention seekers’ who pretend to be ill are costing the NHS £1.7million a year (stock)
WHAT IS MUNCHAUSEN’S SYNDROME?
Munchausen’s syndrome is a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be sick or deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves.
It is thought they enjoy being cared for and the centre of attention, rather than seeking incapacity benefits.
In some cases sufferers undergo major, painful surgery, knowing it is unnecessary.
Munchausen’s syndrome’s causes are unclear but may include childhood trauma, a personality disorder, or a grudge against medical staff or authority figures.
Diagnosis is challenging and usually involves checking a patient’s health records for inconsistencies, as well as carrying out blood tests to investigate if unnecessary medications have been taken.
Most Munchausen’s syndrome sufferers refuse treatment for their mental health condition, despite psychiatric or cognitive behavioural therapy potentially being beneficial.
Source: NHS Choices
Each ‘faker’ costs up to £900 a day
Of the 100 treated patients in 2015/16, 69 were admitted to hospital for an average of one month, resulting in them taking up hospital beds for a total of 1,966 days.
This is over three times more than the 600 hospitalised cases in 2007 to 2008.
Every person who ‘intentionally produces or feigns symptoms or disabilities’ costs the NHS between £800 and £900 a day.
Over the course of a year, this amounts to around £1.7 million, however, experts expect this is just the tip of the iceberg due to the large number of cases that go undetected.
Some patients can run up bills of up to £40,000 if they go from hospital to hospital and demand countless tests to discover what is causing their ‘symptoms’.
Hospital care is not the only expense, as police, ambulances and social services also often get involved.
According to the latest statistics, of the 95 patients who were officially diagnosed with Munchausen’s after hospital stays, 59 were women and 36 were men, with an average age of 39.
‘All you have to do is check Wikipedia and you sound like an expert’
Experts blame so-called Dr Google, the nickname for the internet’s countless medical websites, for the surge in patients faking illnesses. These sites are thought to enable people to list off highly detailed information about their alleged condition and symptoms.
This not only makes it easier to fake illnesses, but also harder and more time-consuming for medical staff to spot.
Dr Christopher Bass, a psychiatrist from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, who has spent 30 years treating patients with such disorders, said: ‘I think in general patients are a lot more savvy than they used to be and they quite often will come up with things they’ve got off the internet, especially rarer and arcane medical disorders that are difficult to diagnose.’
Dr Marc Feldman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama, added: ‘Before you’d have to go to medical libraries and read up on the illnesses you were going to fabricate.
‘And then you would have to go and fake the symptoms so you would have to be a good actor.
‘Now with the internet, all you have to do is check Wikipedia and you can sound like an expert and find a support group for anything. All this can be done from the comfort of your living room.’
The number of hospital beds taken up by patients with fake disorders has trebled in 10 years
Why do people make up illnesses?
It is thought Munchausen’s syndrome sufferers experience an adrenaline rush from receiving treatment they do not need. They may also feel a sense of control by deceiving medical staff.
Others believe such fakers enjoy people caring for them and being the centre of attention.
Dr Bass said: ‘Some patients may have been the victims of adversity as children and when they were in hospital as children got a lot of care and attention from nurses. So you can see how that sort of pattern can become established in adult life.
‘Their symptoms have to be investigated and if you’re examining complicated symptoms and drawing a blank that could be one of the reasons why they’re staying in hospital for longer.’
Some even inject themselves with faeces mixed with water in order to make themselves ill or rub chemicals on to their skin to cause infection.
Dr Bass said: ‘If these aren’t treated properly it can lead to difficulties and even death.
‘What we try to do is engage these people in therapy, help them understand why they’re doing it and try to stop them. It’s very difficult.
‘It probably is underdiagnosed because doctors don’t expect deception in their patients and they’re not trained for it so I’m not surprised that it takes a long time for it to be picked up in hospital.’
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Anyone presenting at an NHS service will have their symptoms assessed by clinicians, and will then receive the most appropriate treatment, whether physical or psychological.’