After a contentious trial where she was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult, former nurse RaDonda Vaught has been charged with three years of probation. Vaught accidentally administered the wrong medication in 2017 after overriding an electronic medication cabinet, which led to the death of a 75-year-old patient.
Many nurses were relieved to hear that Vaught won’t face jail time for her crime, but not everyone is celebrating the news.
Several healthcare organizations have criticized the ruling as a flagrant disregard for patient safety. They argue that letting Vaught off the hook for her crime sends a signal to other nurses that these kinds of incidents go unpunished. Others say the trial may discourage nurses from reporting medication errors in the first place.
Vaught became emotional during the sentencing in a Nashville courtroom. She reflected on how the outcome could affect other providers in the industry.
“This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how [nurses] proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to someone’s attention,” she said. “I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety.”
The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) agreed with her sentiments.
“The criminal conviction and sentencing of a nurse for a medication error is a backward step for patient safety,” the organization said a statement following the ruling. “Although Vaught received probation, her criminal conviction and three-year sentence may lead clinicians to think twice about such open reporting of errors. This case has placed patient safety at risk and has further demoralized an already exhausted and overworked nursing workforce in the face of existing nurse staffing shortages.”
“We are grateful to the judge for demonstrating leniency in the sentencing of nurse Vaught,” said the American Nurses Association (ANA). “Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among skilled, well-meaning and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals.”
The ANA added that the criminalization of medical errors will not preserve safe care environments. Instead, the organization encouraged healthcare organizations to create a confidential peer review process for reviewing errors, make system improvements, and create corrective plans when these incidents occur.
Patient advocates were upset with the sentence as well.
“To achieve our goal of zero patient harm and death from preventable medical errors, we need to foster a culture where leadership of hospitals and healthcare organizations support healthcare workers and encourage them to share near misses,” said the Patient Safety Movement Foundation on May 13 shortly after the ruling was announced.
“Healthcare workers are human and healthcare systems need to ensure there are appropriate processes in place to provide their staff with a safe and reliable working environment so they can provide their patients with the best care. Only by identifying potential problems and learning from them can change occur,” they added.
Robyn Begley, DNP, RN, chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association and CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership, also weighed in on the Vaught case.
“When errors happen, hospitals and health systems need open lines of communication to identify and understand the series of events so they can update patient safety systems to further prevent errors,” said Begley. “Criminal prosecutions will discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people into nursing and other healthcare professions that are already understaffed.”