The government is being urged to make the term “nurse” a protected legal title amid fears the public is being deceived and put at risk by people masquerading as qualified nurses.
A petition calling for the change has already attracted almost 14,000 signatures and was prompted by the recent case of anti-vaccine activist Kate Shemirani, who was struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council last month.
The mother-of-four from Nottingham, has said she will continue to describe herself as a nurse.
The use of “nurse” by unregistered staff has also proliferated in the NHS in recent years meaning members of the public cannot be sure they are being treated by a qualified nurse.
Under current law, only the title of “registered nurse” is protected and cannot be used unless the individual is registered with the NMC.
While roles such as paramedic, physiotherapist and even hearing aid dispenser and art therapist are protected, the title of nurse can be used by anyone – regardless of whether they have any qualifications.
The nursing regulator has itself told the government it is worried about its ability to protect the public from those posing as nurses.
Professor Alison Leary, from London South Bank University, set up the petition after Ms Shemirani was struck off but told The Independent the problem was more widespread.
Research by Prof Leary, published in 2017, showed NHS trusts were actively using “nurse” in the job titles for hundreds of healthcare support staff working across the NHS and directly with patients.
Some roles gave the impression staff were senior nurses with job titles such as “advanced practitioner” or “advanced nurse practitioner”.
She said: “It is a patient safety risk, but it’s also about the public as well feeling they’ve been deceived. You don’t go to a dentist and find out they’re not a dentist. It’s ridiculous that lots of other roles are protected in law but one of the most common roles in healthcare is not.
“We’ve known this has been a problem for quite some time. But there’s been a reluctance on the part of government to do anything about it.
“We have an opportunity here to really make a very positive move for patient safety by protecting the title, and restricting its use, professionally, to people with qualifications and registration.”
The government is planning to reform professional regulators including the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
In response to the plans, the NMC made clear it felt there was a gap in the protection.
It said: “We do not think that our current powers are sufficient in this space given that they are primarily based around titles that are not widely understood by the public or used by the professions, and we want to ensure that we have sufficient regulatory levers to be able to protect the public in the future.”
It added: “Recent high-profile cases have underlined the limitations of ‘nurse’ not being a protected title.
Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive, said: “Under our current legislation, our powers are limited, both in terms of the titles we protect and the action we can take.
“We want to work with government and other stakeholders to ensure we have the right protected titles and enforcement powers so we can take effective action to protect the public and maintain confidence in the professions.”
The petition is live on the government’s website here.
Ministers are expected to respond to the request within days after it surpassed the 10,000 signatures mark.