The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland has called for minimum staffing levels to be made a legal requirement on all health boards.
RCN Scotland says nursing specialists are vital
The RCN welcomed Scottish Executive figures which showed an increase in the number of specialists across the country, but said more had to be done.
Four hundred nurses gathered in Edinburgh for the Facing the Future's national convention.
They argued that more specialists staff could transform patient care.
At present there are 27 nurse consultants in Scotland, but the executive wants to increase that number to 54 by 2007.
There are 800 nurse consultants in England with a target of 1,000 by 2005 and the RCN has said Scotland needs more specialists.
RCN Scotland director, James Kennedy, said there was "convincing evidence" of a link between the specialist nursing workforce and patient care.
He said: "That is, the more registered nurses and the better educated they are, the fewer number of patients who die or develop complications.
"Now there is an economic reason as well as a quality reason to invest in more nurses.
"Getting it right for nurses will get it right for patients. RCN Scotland is calling for appropriate staffing levels to be made a legal requirement on all NHS boards."
One in four people in Scotland will suffer from mental health problems at some stage of their lives, according to RCN Scotland.
It said two in five Scots will be affected by cancer, but only 1% of Scottish nurses have a cancer qualification.
RCN Scotland chair, Jane McCready, said the executive had taken a positive step in tackling the staffing shortfall.
But she added: "RCN Scotland has today asked that the Health Minister (Malcolm Chisholm) make resources available for every mainland NHS board to have a nurse consultant in cancer nursing, heart disease, mental health, older people's care, children's services and primary care.
"Nurse leadership in these areas is absolutely critical to deliver real change for the people of Scotland."
During the convention in Edinburgh, delegates were told that there have been positive developments in the nursing profession in terms of image, perception and recruitment.