Protecting the title Nurse in UK Law

Professor of healthcare and workforce modelling Alison Leary helped to found the recent campaign to protect the title of nurse in law.

Nursing is the most trusted profession, but anyone in the UK can refer to themselves as a nurse even if they have been struck off, have no qualifications or have been convicted of a crime.

Although the term Registered Nurse is protected under the 1997 Nurses Midwives and Health Visiting Act, the term “nurse” is not protected in the UK. It’s an issue because the term nurse is the term in common usage. Other professional titles such as physiotherapist, hearing aid dispenser, dental nurse or paramedic are protected in law.

This means anyone can use the term nurse to offer services, advice or be employed as a “nurse”. The use of the term nurse is not restricted to use by Registered Nurses and can be used by many different types of workers.

Those struck off or convicted can still gain employment as a “nurse”. It is increasingly used in roles where a nursing qualification is optional, but this is not evident to the public. For example a staff nurse, district nurse or matron would usually mean a registered nurse but with some employers this is no longer the case as hard pressed employers are opening up nursing roles to different workers in order to cope with the massive deficit in registered nurses that we have in health and social care.

We think the misuse of job titles is a patient safety and trust issue. It also masks significant workforce issues in health and social care. In 2019 there were over 50,000 registered nurse vacancies in England in the NHS alone and the government undertook to recruit more “nurses”. Not defining nurse means other workers can be employed in these roles and further mask the nursing shortage.

Why is this important to the workforce? Terming a big group of workers as “nurses” hides the issue of gaps in the nursing workforce and patients not receiving expert nursing care which is known to have benefits in terms of issues such as survival. The work of the nursing support workforce is now essential in health and social care but all too often invisible. Lumping workers together means that the contributions are not seen. This invisibility has led to a devaluation of care and that’s an important patient safety issue.

Your elected representatives on the UNISON nursing and midwifery committee were happy to support this campaign. You can sign and share the petition to Government here

The UNISON Health Team will lobby and influence Government to try and ensure this action is taken in the most effective way.