Patient safety is at risk due to a shortage of 40,000 nurses in England, according to a new study.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the rising rate of hospital admissions is dwarfing the recruitment of extra nurses to the NHS.
Its analysis shows that the extra 9,894 nurses recruited to NHS hospitals since 2013/14 is outstripped by the additional 1,557,074 admissions over the same period.
A separate poll for the union of 1,692 people in the UK found 71% think there are not enough nurses to provide safe care to patients.
Of 1,408 people polled in England, 37% said their top priority for any extra NHS funding was the recruitment of more nurses.
And some 67% wrongly believed the Government has a legal responsibility to ensure there are sufficient nursing staff in the NHS.
The RCN is launching an advertising campaign to encourage the public to speak up about the impact nurse shortages has on care.
Healthwatch England, the national consumer group for people who use health and social care services, said patients had a right to know whether safe staffing levels were being achieved on hospital wards.
And it said the right mix of staff – such as the ratio of healthcare assistants to fully qualified nurses – needed to be in place.
The RCN is calling for new legislation to ensure accountability for safe nurse staffing at all levels of health and care services in England.
It also wants an investment of at least £1 billion in nurse higher education to reverse the declining numbers opting to study nursing.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the RCN, said: “Today we’re issuing a stark warning that patient safety is being endangered by nursing shortages.
“Staffing shortfalls are never simply numbers on a spreadsheet – they affect real patients in real communities.
“We’re calling on the public in England to fight for nurses and sign our petition calling on the Westminster government to invest in the future workforce and make clear who is accountable in law for safe patient care.”
The 2013 report on failings of care at Stafford Hospital, where hundreds of patients died, pointed to a significant shortage of nurses as being partly to blame.
Healthwatch England chairman, Sir Robert Francis, who examined the failings at Stafford, said: “Healthwatch evidence suggests the public’s patience with overstretched staffing and the impact this is having on care is starting to wear thin.
“People have rightly come to expect compassion and empathy from health and social care staff, and they should not have to adjust this expectation because of pressures on the NHS.
“To promote patient safety it is also important that the public understand the difference between a busy ward and one that may be unsafe. This is an important message for those in charge of planning and scheduling of staff rotas to hear.
“One of the key ways of maintaining patient safety is to ensure there is an adequate number of staff on shift to attend to peoples’ clinical needs.
“Patients and the public also need to have access to real-time information about the number and type of staff required on any ward for it to be safe and the actual number on duty.
“Safe staffing is also about ensuring the right skill mix. Healthwatch wants to see health and social care organisations getting the right balance of professional skills and experience in the workplace.”