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Uncovering the Disturbing World of Healthcare Serial Killers

Preserving trust and exposing betrayal

Background


We depend heavily on medical professionals during our most defenceless and vulnerable moments, trusting them with our well-being. However, what would happen if this trust was broken? What if the medical professionals were to pose harm rather than fulfil their intended function as protectors? Healthcare serial killers are one of the most disturbing subsets of serial killers - the name itself suggests that individuals within the healthcare industry exploit their position to murder patients. True crime and media often go hand in hand in the modern era. There are many web series, TV dramas, and movies that delve into real-life narratives. Accumulating over 68.31 million hours watched, Netflix's film "The Good Nurse" in 2022, depicts the story of Charles Cullen, a figure recognised as one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. The film quickly rose to prominence and became the best-performing English-language film production on the platform. This phenomenon in media underscores a broader pattern wherein the portrayal of serial killers becomes increasingly prevalent within popular culture.


Motives


Criminologists and true crime filmmakers engaged in extensive efforts to figure out what motivates serial killers to carry out such horrific crimes for decades. The motives behind killings are diverse, complex and sometimes unknown. Some perpetrators may attempt to justify their actions by claiming to ease the patient's suffering under the guise of “mercy killing”. Others can be driven by the desire to be praised, to exert power or control over the patient, or to gain financial benefits. For example, Dr. Harold Shipman, a British doctor killed over 200 patients, primarily driven by sadistic motives. His misdeeds were ultimately exposed when he attempted to forge the will of one of his victims.


Key Traits and Methods


Although it might be tempting to create a list of characteristics typical of healthcare serial killers, no universally applicable formula defines their personalities. However, according to research by Yardley, E., and Wilson, D. (2016), attention-seeking, strange behaviour when a patient dies, and frequent changes in hospital working locations are characteristics that healthcare serial killers frequently exhibit. Furthermore, the study conducted by Birmingham City University criminologists shows that the most popular technique employed by healthcare serial killers is poisoning, specifically through insulin overdose. Notably, insulin overdose was the principal method employed by 25% of healthcare serial killers. For instance, in the case of British nurse Lucy Letby, who was given a life sentence for killing seven infants and attempting to murder six others, the use of an insulin overdose was a notable method employed.


Ethics


Examining the ethical implications of healthcare serial killing is essential, as it involves the breach of trust and violation of core principles of the healthcare profession. The relationship between a medical professional and a patient is based solely on trust, which healthcare serial killers have exploited. What's worse is that medical professionals frequently target elderly, chronically ill, or vulnerable patients, highlighting significant ethical issues.


Challenges


Detecting healthcare serial killers is difficult, primarily because their victims are frequently elderly or suffering from chronic illnesses. Investigations typically stem from an unusually high number of deaths rather than patient or family complaints. Even if the police initiate an investigation, it may be too late to collect physical evidence, as bodies may have been cremated or significantly decomposed, leaving no trace of substances in the patients' systems. Furthermore, in rare cases where a medical professional faces charges, they may use defences such as assisted suicides or attribute deaths to unintentional medical errors, potentially resulting in reduced sentences or lesser degrees of homicide .


Conclusion


Healthcare serial killers are a deeply disturbing phenomenon within the medical profession. The idea that people upon whom we rely on to take care of us can occasionally exhibit malevolence is extremely unsettling. By employing research to understand the existence of serial killers in the healthcare industry, we can address the many questions that surround their behaviour. Studying the motive behind such crimes, looking at the key traits and methods, and addressing the challenges associated with identifying such perpetrators provide insights crucial for safeguarding the community of patients who are at risk and preserving the core moral principles of the medical field. Let’s conclude by saying that the way that healthcare serial killings are portrayed in popular media is a clear reminder of the moral and professional obligations inherent in the provision of healthcare.


Written by Prabha Rana



References


‘The True Story Behind Netflix’s The Good Nurse’. TIME, 27 Oct. 2022, https://time.com/6225730/the-good-nurse-true-story-netflix/.


Menshawey, Rahma, and Esraa Menshawey. ‘Brave Clarice-Healthcare Serial Killers, Patterns, Motives, and Solutions’. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, vol. 19, no. 3, Sept. 2023, pp. 452–63. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12024-022-00556-4.


Tinning, Danielle. ‘Meet The British Physician Who Killed Hundreds Of His Patients — On Purpose’. All That’s Interesting, 21 Apr. 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/haroldshipman.


Guy, Fiona. ‘Medical Serial Killers: The So-Called Angels of Mercy’. Crime Traveller, 27 June 2018, https://www.crimetraveller.org/2018/06/healthcare-medical-serial-killers/.


Townsend, Mark. ‘Study Identifies Key Traits and Methods of Serial Killer Nurses’. The Guardian, 22 Nov. 2014. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2014/nov/22/study-identified-key-traits-serial-killer-nurses.

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