Nurse Practitioner (DNP) Fined $19K For Calling Self "Doctor Sarah"

4 Min Read Published November 23, 2022
Nurse Practitioner (DNP) Fined $19K For Calling Self "Doctor Sarah"

A California Nurse Practitioner with a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree (DNP) has been fined $19,750 for referring to herself as doctor within her clinical practice, online, and on social media. 

Sarah Erny, a California Nurse Practitioner, earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) from Vanderbilt University. She opened a clinic, Holistic Women’s Healing, in Arroyo Grande in 2018. From October 2018 through March 2022, Erny is alleged to have referred to herself as Dr. Sarah on social media and in her clinical practice without making it clear she was not a medical doctor (MD).

According to the County of San Louis Obispo District Attorney's website, California’s State Business and Professions Code only allow certain professionals to use the term “doctor" - registered nurses with a doctorate degree in nursing are not allowed to refer to themselves as a doctor under this code. The terms “certified nurse practitioner” or “advanced practice registered nurse” are deemed appropriate, however.

The complaint was filed against Erny on October 27, 2022, by the County of San Luis Obispo District Attorney, Dan Dow. The original complaint can be viewed here.


The Injunction

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office website states, "While in most instances Ms. 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 Ms. Erny’s nurse status." Read the full files here.

Erny made it known that she was a Nurse Practitioner most of the time, but she did not publicly acknowledge who her supervising physician was.  Because of this, she has been fined a total of $19,750. Of that total, $16,000 is for civil penalties, and $3,750 is for investigative costs to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office.

Following the injunction, which was filed electronically on November 4, 2022, Erny must refrain from using the term “doctor” or “Dr” when referring to herself. According to the actual court case files, she must also search internet sites for a period of five years to ensure she is not being referred to as a doctor on third-party sites. In addition, she is to correct and prohibit supervising physicians, staff members, and patients from calling her "Doctor Sarah."

>> Read the case files here

Statement From San Luis Obispo County District Attorney

San Luis Obispo County DA, Dan Dow, released this statement about the case:

“We want all health care professionals to clearly display their education and licensure so that patients know who is providing their care. 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 full press release can be found here.

Statement From Sarah Erny’s Attorney

Melanie Balestra, NP, is the attorney representing Sarah Erny. In an email to a media outlet, Balestra mentions many other health professionals use the term “Dr.” without being targeted. She wonders why Erny is being singled out and raises the question if this is discrimination against nurse practitioners. 

Balestra states Sarah, "always explained she was a nurse practitioner. No evidence was ever presented where she stated or wrote she was a physician. There was no witness that stated Ms. Erny stated she was a physician. She held herself out as Dr. Sarah, the nurse practitioner, or Dr. Sarah Erny, DNP." 

Support For Sarah Erny - Go Fund Me Page

Erny started a Go Fund Me page to help with legal fees. In her fundraising description, she gives her account of the story. She writes, “When I received my doctorate, my patients were so proud of me that they started calling me Dr. Sarah. The last physician that I worked with also told me that I needed to own my degree and had his staff call me Dr. Sarah with patients and the name stuck.”

Erny says that due to the investigation she had to close her clinic, and this caused undue hardship. She also vows she never presented herself as a physician.

She goes on to say, “To be asked to settle & sign this document stating I have committed fraud which is plain not true is even worse.”

On November 16, 2022, in an update on her GoFundMe page, Erny states she has signed the settlement but now the Board of Nursing has a case against her. She fears she will lose her nursing license. Referring to the Board of Nursing, she writes, “they asked me to relinquish my license in October, but we chose to try to fight it which will incur further legal fees.

>> Nurses, Take The State of Nursing 2022 Survey (anonymously) - make your voice heard!

Christy Book
Christy Book Contributor

Christy Book, BSN, RN, is a registered nurse from Louisiana. She has served as an assistant director of nursing, director of nursing, and divisional director of nursing in the long-term care setting. Other nursing experience includes medical-surgical, allied health instructor, and immigration. She is also an American Heart Association BLS Instructor. Christy’s passion for writing, researching, and educating others is what led her to become a nurse writer.

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