Former nurse sentenced to probation in death of patient

RaDonda Vaught received probation in a case that gained national attention. Many expressed relief she was spared a prison term, but experts warned her conviction could deter nurses from disclosing errors.

A former nurse has been sentenced to probation in a highly-watched case involving the death of a patient, and the judge's decision Friday elicited relief from nurses nationwide.

The trial of RaDonda Vaught gained national attention. She was convicted in March of negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult after a trial in Nashville, Tennessee.

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith sentenced Vaught to three years of probation, The Tennessean and other media outlets reported. Under the terms of her sentence, her conviction could be wiped off her record if she completes the probationary program successfully.

In 2017, Vaught, then a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, gave 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphey a dose of a paralyzing drug, vecuronium, instead of a sedative.

After her conviction in March, nurses and other medical groups warned the verdict could have a chilling effect on the healthcare profession.

Some warned the verdict would prompt nurses to leave the profession, exacerbating a nationwide nursing shortage. Some leaders also said it could make nurses and doctors more reluctant to disclose errors, which could pose greater risks for the safety of patients.

Rebecca Love, a registered nurse and chief clinical officer at IntelyCare, told Chief Healthcare Executive the conviction of Vaught haunted many nurses.

"It is resonating so powerfully," she said in a recent interview. "It’s not that you could lose your job or livelihood. It’s that we could lose our freedom.”

During the sentencing hearing, Vaught tearfully said, "I let Charlene Murphey down. I let her family down. I let myself down."

Outside the courthouse, a crowd, including some healthcare workers, cheered after hearing the judge opted for probation over a prison term, The Tennesseean reported. A photo shows a doctor holding a sign saying that jailing Vaught "will worsen medical drug errors."

Robyn Begley, chief nursing officer of the American Hospital Association, said in a statement Friday she was pleased the judge showed leniency.

"Tragic incidents that result from medical errors should not be criminalized," Begley said.

"Criminal prosecutions will discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people into nursing and other healthcare professions that are already understaffed."

The American Nurses Association sent a letter to the judge on Vaught's behalf, imploring the judge to issue a lenient sentence. After the sentence was announced, the nurses association said it was grateful Vaught was spared prison.

"Nurses too often find themselves working under conditions that increase the likelihood of adverse outcomes from tragic mistakes," the ANA said in a statement Friday.

The ANA and Tennessee Nurses Association both said in March they were “deeply distressed by this verdict and the harmful ramifications of criminalizing the honest reporting of mistakes.”

“The criminalization of medical errors is unnerving, and this verdict sets into motion a dangerous precedent," the nursing groups said. "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."

Love told Chief Healthcare Executive she was worried about one lingering aspect of the convicton of Vaught. Prosecutors in other areas may be likely to pursue similar cases when healthcare workers make errors, she said.

"Now DAs recognize jurors will find nurses guilty for unintentional harm," Love said.

Anne Dabrow Woods, the chief nurse of Wolters Kluwer’s Health, Learning, Research and Practice business, said in an April interview with Chief Healthcare Executive that the case could make healthcare workers think twice about disclosing mistakes.

“We’re at a precipice right now," Woods said. "Nurses are going to think twice about putting their license in jeopardy. Are they going to be supported if they make an error?”

Woods and other health leaders said hospitals and healthcare systems need to look at the systemic problems that can lead to errors harming patients. Some nursing leaders are also calling for hospitals to reconsider 12-hours shifts for nurses to help protect patients.

“We need to make sure this doesn’t become a fear factor issue where people are afraid to be transparent and say when they made an error," Woods told Chief Healthcare Executive. "Everybody makes mistakes. Doctors make mistakes.

“The key thing in healthcare is we need to make sure there are systems in place that not only protect our patients but also protect us from making those mistakes," she said.

In its statement Friday, the American Nurses Association called for changes to protect nurses and their patients.

"Leaders, regulators and administrators have a responsibility to nurses and patients to put in place and sustain organizational structures that support a just culture, which includes recognizing that mistakes happen and systems fail," the ANA said.

"Structures should include full and confidential peer review processes to examine errors, deploy system improvements and establish corrective action plans. The criminalization of medical errors will not preserve safe patient care environments.”