Advocates: Conviction of Nurse Sets Progress Back

Verdict could encourage hospitals to cover up mistakes
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 30, 2022 5:06 PM CDT
Advocates: Conviction of Nurse Sets Progress Back
Chandra Murphey wipes her tears while testifying about the death of her mother-in-law, Charlene Murphey, during the trial of RaDonda Vaught.   (Stephanie Amador/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

The moment nurse RaDonda Vaught realized she had given a patient the wrong medication, she rushed to the doctors working to revive 75-year-old Charlene Murphey and told them what she had done. Within hours, she made a full report of her mistake to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Murphey died the next day, Dec. 27, 2017. On Friday, a jury found Vaught guilty of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect. That verdict—and the fact that Vaught was charged at all—worries patient safety and nursing groups that have worked for years to move hospital culture away from cover-ups, blame, and punishment, and toward the honest reporting of mistakes, the AP reports.

The move to a "Just Culture" seeks to improve safety by analyzing human errors and making systemic changes to prevent their recurrence. That can't happen if providers think they could go to prison, they say. "The criminalization of medical errors is unnerving, and this verdict sets into motion a dangerous precedent," the American Nurses Association said. “Health care delivery is highly complex. It is inevitable that mistakes will happen." Just Culture has been widely adopted in hospitals since a 1999 report by the National Academy of Medicine estimated at least 98,000 people may die each year due to medical errors. Bad outcomes remain common, with many hospital staffers convinced that owning up to mistakes will expose them to punishment, according to a 2018 study.

More than 46,000 death certificates listed complications of medical and surgical care—a category that includes medical errors—among the causes of death in 2020, according to federal data. "Best estimates are 7,000-10,000 fatal medication errors a year. Are we going to lock them up? Who is going to replace them?” said Bruce Lambert, a patient safety expert at Northwestern University. "If you think RaDonda Vaught is criminally negligent, you just don’t know how health care works." Mistakes often end up in malpractice lawsuits, but criminal prosecutions are rare. Many nurses are "already at their breaking point ... after a physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting two years caring for patients with COVID," said Liz Stokes, director of the American Nurses Association's Center for Ethics and Human Rights. Vaught's prosecution gives them one more reason to quit, she said.

(Read more nursing stories.)

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