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Settlement reached for nurse who advertised herself as ‘doctor’ 

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Nurse practitioner referred to herself on website, social media accounts as ‘Doctor Sarah’

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow announced today that the District Attorney’s Office Special Prosecution Unit has reached a settlement with a local nurse practitioner who referred to herself on her professional website and social media accounts as “Doctor Sarah.”

Sarah Erny, R.N., N.P., earned a doctorate degree in nursing practice. Shortly thereafter, she began promoting herself as “Doctor Sarah Erny.” From Oct. 2018 until March 2022, Erny hosted a professional website and was active on various social media accounts wherein she identified herself as “Dr. Sarah Erny.” While in most instances Erny indicated that she was a nurse practitioner, she failed to advise the public that she was not a medical doctor and failed to identify her supervising physician. Adding to the lack of clarity caused by referring to herself as “Dr. Sarah,” online search results would list “Dr. Sarah Erny,” without any mention of Erny’s nurse status.

California’s Business and Professions Code prohibits all but a select few healthcare professionals from calling themselves “doctor” or “physician.” As for specially trained registered nurses, such as nurse practitioners, California law permits titles such as “Certified Nurse Practitioner,” and “Advanced Practice Registered Nurse.” The courts have held that the purpose for limiting the use of titles within the health care field is to protect the public by ensuring every health care provider properly represents themselves in their true capacity by an appropriate title.

Recent national surveys indicate that the public is confused as to who is and who is not a medical doctor, according to the DA. Funded by the American Medical Association, and reported in “Truth in Advertising Campaign,” the surveys indicate that 39% of respondents incorrectly identified a doctor of nursing practice as a medical doctor and 19% incorrectly believed a nurse practitioner was a physician. This is to say there is a great need for healthcare providers to state their level of training and licensing clearly and honestly in all of their advertising and marketing materials.

“We want all health care professionals to clearly display their education and licensure so that patients know who is providing their care,” said Dow. “All forms of professional medical services advertising, including websites and social media accounts, must be free of deceptive or misleading information and must clearly identify the professional license held by the advertiser. Providing patients upfront with the proper title of our health care professionals aids consumers in making a more informed decision about their health care.”

The civil judgment requires Erny to pay civil penalties totaling $19,750 and to refrain from referring to herself as “doctor” in her role of providing medical treatment to the public. It also requires Erny to identify and make reasonable efforts to correct information on internet sites referring to her as “doctor” or “Dr.”

This case was investigated by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Health Quality Investigation Unit and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Bureau of Investigation and prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Jorgensen assigned to the District Attorney’s Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit.

The DA’s consumer protection team is committed to protecting the public from unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent or deceptive business practices. Consumer protection cases can be pursued in either criminal or civil court. Examples of such cases include contractor’s fraud, false or misleading advertising, and “bait and switch” scams. The unit also aims to increase public awareness of consumer issues through presentations to local groups when called upon.

For more information about the consumer protection laws or to report suspected violations contact the California Department of Consumer Affairs Consumer Assistance Line toll-free at (800) 952-5210 or visit their website at Hearing-impaired persons may call TTY (800) 326-229.


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