“DCA investigators work to protect consumers from harm. It is particularly important that consumers, as patients, are protected. We thank the State investigators who look into any concerning actions of medical professionals as a way to protect us.” – CSLEA President Alan Barcelona
SAN LUIS OBISPO – On November 14, 2022, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney announced that a settlement has been reached 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 October 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 health care 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. Simply put, there is a great need for health care 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 District Attorney Dan 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.