Financial cuts and staff shortages are being blamed for pressing employers into hiring nurses on the spot and failing to make routine checks on their backgrounds.
Healthcare professionals are particularly worried because even though a confirmation telephone line exists to enable employers to check a nurse's training, statistics show it is being used less. Figures from the service, operated by the UKCC (United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting) show a huge drop of 37 per cent in the number of calls made to the helpline last year.
The UKCC system operates by assigning each nurse a PIN number once they have completed their training and sent in a copy of their training certificates along with character references. Employers can then phone the confirmation line when a nurse is interviewed to check her PIN matches her name, and training details. The UKCC has called for a legal obligation for employers to check registration.
In the last nine months employers using the helpline have discovered 24 nurses who turned out to be bogus but John Knape, communications manager of the UKCC, said this figure represented only the tip of an iceberg.
"We fear that many employers, perhaps because they are pressed to put nurses to work because of shortages, are cutting corners," he said. "But there really is no excuse for not using the service to check out nurses. It's even free."
Maggie Dunn, Senior National Officer of Unison, the health workers union, agreed, and said that the urgency to recruit staff often led to nurses being hired almost immediately.
"We've a rapid turnover in nursing," she said, "and employers aren't necessarily going to make enquiries about people they need for the next day."
The significant decrease in the number of people using the confirmation line - from 157,000 in 1996/97 to 99,000 in 1997/98 - is a major concern for the UKCC.
Employers are not required by law to check a nurse's qualifications, creating a problem that has plagued the profession for years - unqualified bogus nurses working within the NHS.
Last month, a woman posing as an agency nurse injected a patient with morphine at Bristol's Southmead Hospital. Staff became suspicious and questioned her, only to discover she had no formal nursing training.
The Government is now carrying out a review of the Nurses, Midwives, and Health Visitors Act 1980, and many healthcare workers are hoping it will lead to an introduction of legislation requiring employers to check nurses' qualifications, when the findings are made public in July.
However, there is concern among employers that a call to the UKCC does not give a water-tight guarantee that the nurse who comes for the interview is the same nurse who is registered.
Ms Dunn said that despite such concerns there should be a legal requirement for employers to check with the UKCC. "All too often we get stories about nurses who have been struck off and then go and take up work elsewhere," she said. "If we want to protect people then checks should be compulsory."
There is also a wide disparity in the use of the service, according to Nursing Standard magazine. The Manchester General Hospital rarely uses the service, although Carol Kelly, recruitment manager at the hospital, said all UKCC PIN numbers were seen at interview by senior nurse managers.
Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust has not used the service for over six months, even though they employ around 80 nurses a month. Instead it asks nurses to provide two referees, a high standard of health clearance and a UKCC PIN number.Reuse content