Former nurse’s criminal conviction will have a ‘chilling effect’ on healthcare

By Carol Davis

The conviction of former Vanderbilt nurse RaDonda Vaught for gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide will have a “chilling effect” on the culture of safety in healthcare, Robyn Begley, CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), said in a statement.

“Criminal prosecutions for unintentional acts are the wrong approach,” Begley said. “They discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people in to nursing and other healthcare professions that are already understaffed and strained by years of caring for patients during the pandemic.”

Vaught was convicted Friday of a 2017 fatal drug error after a three-day trial that continues to capture the attention of nurses across the country, many of whom worry that the case could set a precedent of criminalizing medical errors.

Vaught, scheduled to be sentenced May 13, faces three to six years in prison for neglect and one to two years for negligent homicide.

“The Institute of Medicine’s landmark report To Err Is Human concluded that we cannot punish our way to safer medical practices,” Begley said. “We must instead encourage nurses and physicians to report errors so we can identify strategies to make sure they don’t happen again.”

Vaught has consistently taken responsibility for the deadly error, which occurred when the patient, a 75-year-old woman, was supposed to get Versed, a sedative intended to calm her. Instead, Vaught accidentally administered vecuronium, a powerful paralyzer, which stopped the patient’s breathing.

Vanderbilt received no punishment for the fatal error.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) also expressed dismay at the “harmful ramifications of criminalizing the honest reporting of mistakes.”

Mistakes inevitably will occur and systems will fail, the ANA said in a statement, adding, “It is completely unrealistic to think otherwise.”

“There are more effective and just mechanisms to examine errors, establish system improvements, and take corrective action. The non-intentional acts of individual nurses like RaDonda Vaught should not be criminalized to ensure patient safety,” the ANA said.

“This ruling,” the statement concluded, “will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.”

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand. This story first appeared on HealthLeaders Media.