Nurse Gets Probation, Problem Remains

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Nurse RaDonda Vaught received a sentence of three years’ probation after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult in an incident that occurred on Dec 26, 2017. For the nurse, this ends years of wondering whether she would spend 8 years in prison, but not the questions about the event.

Nurse Vaught erroneously gave vercuronium, a paralyzing agent, to a 75-year-old patient instead of Versed, a sedating agent, prior to a procedure. She had overridden several warnings as she accessed the medication from the pharmacy cabinet. The software system issues so many warnings, often trivial or inappropriate, that it had become routine to override them so that patient care could proceed. After administering the dose, she was called away to assist in the emergency room. Tragically, the patient died.

Hundreds of workers rallied outside the courthouse during the sentencing hearing, warning that criminalizing errors would lead to more hospital deaths because of reluctance to report errors.

Nurse Vaught immediately acknowledged her error. The hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, did not, however, notify the county medical examiner of an unexpected death, but attributed it to a brain bleed. The hospital also failed to notify state or federal officials of the error or the death, though they were obligated by law to do so. The incident did not become public until an anonymous tip prompted an unannounced federal inspection almost a year later, when many serious deficiencies were found.

“The nurse was criminally charged and has a felony conviction, but what happened to hospital officials responsible for reporting and correcting hazardous conditions?” asks AAPS executive director Jane Orient, M.D. “Why can paralyzing agents even be obtained by nurses for patients getting a routine scan?”

“Threatening a nurse with a decade in prison for a terrible but unintentional error does not fix the system problems or make patients safer, but it does cause capable, dedicated people to re-think their career plans.”

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) is a national organization representing physicians in all specialties since 1943. Its motto is omnia pro aegroto (everything for the patient).