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What can we learn from the former nurse RaDonda Vaught trial?

Nurses from across the country expressed shock and anger when Tennessee nurse RaDonda Vaught was tried and convicted earlier this year for the accidental death of a patient in 2017 due to a medication error. Such mistakes rarely reach the criminal courts and state medical boards usually handled these situations. Vaught faced sentencing on May 13, 2022.

An overview of the case

Vaught worked at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center when she mistakenly gave a patient vecuronium instead of Versed. She missed several warning signs and overrode the medication cabinet’s safety system. After administering the drug, she left the patient to await a test. The patient died and Vaught was arrested in 2019 for reckless homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult. A jury convicted her of the gross neglect charge and a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide in March of this year.

Nurses from around the country rallied to Vaught’s defense, claiming that nurses are spread far too thin due to staffing shortages across the country. Not only are mistakes to be expected under these conditions, but criminal prosecutions will likely only make the situation worse. The pandemic has pushed many more nurses out of an already desperate field, and if nurses must fear criminal prosecution for their mistakes, such measures may drive out even more nurses.

Although Vaught faced up to eight years in prison, the judge in this case showed leniency in Vaught’s sentencing. She granted a diversion of the three-year sentence and gave Vaught probation in lieu of prison time. Vaught may even have the chance to expunge her record if she completes probation. As for her career, Vaught lost her license and will not practice as a nurse again. The nursing community still protests the fact that prosecutors chose to criminalize Vaught’s error to begin with.

Could technology help prevent future mistakes?

People in the health care industry are asking what this means for the future and if they can do anything to prevent similar problems in their own practice. Technology may offer solutions, but only if the industry is dedicated to adopting and implementing it correctly. Testimony at the trial indicated that people often override computerized medicine cabinets to save time, which indicates that the system does not work. If technology can help automate certain tasks, however, that could save nurses precious time. In addition, increased team collaboration and communication can prevent errors. For example, smart software can now connect team members on mobile handsets. This is just one way advanced technology can improve care for patients, assist caregivers and protect a nurse’s license.

Looking to the future

Moving forward, medical practices and individual health care providers may ask what they can do to improve communication and collaboration. Whether through technology or other means, they may consider how to help each other through busy stretches when individuals may become overwhelmed or distracted. Although the judge in Vaught’s case showed mercy, the prosecution and conviction show nurses cannot depend on the justice system to be understanding of human error. More than just a license to practice could be at stake.