Health

‘A bad & scary precedent’: Local doctors react to nurse’s conviction in accidental death case

“The error that led to this tragic death was real. But a version of this skipped-safety-step happens every day across the country.”

RaDonda Vaught and her attorney Peter Strianse listen as verdicts are read at the end of her trial in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, March 25. Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool

Last week a nurse was convicted of two felonies for a fatal drug error in 2017, a ruling that Dr. Megan Ranney called “chilling on so many levels.”

The associate dean of the Brown University School of Public Health said on Twitter she was working in the emergency room when news of the ruling broke. She wrote Saturday that she and her co-workers kept talking about it, and that it spurred worries from her nurse friends that “it could have been any of [them]. Especially in the last 2 years.”

After a three-day trial in Nashville, Tenn., RaDonda Vaught was convicted of two felonies: gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide. She faces three to six years in prison for neglect and one to two years for negligent homicide, according to NPR.

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Her trial has been closely followed by nurses and medical professionals, many of whom, like Ranney, worry that it could set a dangerous precedent for criminal prosecution of medical mistakes.

“Negligence is not ok. That’s why [medical malpractice] exists,” Ranney tweeted. “But there’s a huge gap between malpractice, and HOMICIDE charges. This sets a bad & scary precedent.”

Ranney also pointed out that a culture of safety is dependent on change happening in systems that allow errors to slip through — something not achieved by scapegoating the individual. 

“The error that led to this tragic death was real. But a version of this skipped-safety-step happens every day across the country,” Ranney wrote. 

Vaught was arrested in 2019 in connection with the death of Charlene Murphey, who died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in late December 2017. According to NPR, Vaught was charged with gross neglect, which stemmed from allegations that she didn’t properly monitor Murphey after injecting her with the wrong drug. Vaught had injected Murphey with a powerful paralyzer, vecuronium, instead of the prescribed sedative, Versed.

Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, pointed to the alphabetic similarities of the two drugs and said in a blog post that “similar alphabetical errors probably occur all the time,” and that it hit close to home for him. 

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Earlier in his career, a patient was given Rocuronium, a paralytic, as opposed to Rocephin, an antibiotic, Faust wrote Friday. In that case the error was caught quickly and the patient suffered no consequences. 

Faust said while this kind of serious error is rare, it is not impossible and could happen to anyone. They also may be preventable, but Faust says it’s more complicated than it may sound. 

For example, Faust says adding more alarms or hoops to jump through to get medications is not the answer — healthcare providers encounter hundreds of alarms a day, he noted, and there are times when they need to access medicines quickly. Logistics shouldn’t hinder that ability, he said. Better labeling, however, is an easier fix, according to Faust. 

In response to Vaught’s conviction, the American Nurses Association issued a statement, saying there are more effective methods to examine errors, and expressing worries that this verdict will drive people away from nursing, an already short-staffed profession. 

“We are deeply distressed by this verdict and the harmful ramifications of criminalizing the honest reporting of mistakes,” reads the statement. “Health care delivery is highly complex. It is inevitable that mistakes will happen, and systems will fail. It is completely unrealistic to think otherwise. The criminalization of medical errors is unnerving, and this verdict sets into motion a dangerous precedent.”

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Ranney echoed those concerns on Twitter, saying that nurses, and healthcare providers in general, are “constantly” working at the edges of their capacity.

“Most of all: healthcare workers are already hurting. Esp in light of the last 2 years…this verdict will doubtless send more folks out of bedside care,” she wrote.

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