Should the death of a patient lead to prison?

If a nurse makes a medical error resulting in the illness or death of your loved one, should she be held criminally liable and go to jail?

It’s a question at the center of heated debate as former Tennessee nurse RaDonda Vaught is set to be sentenced this month for her role in a patient’s death.

On March 25, a Nashville jury found Vaught guilty of criminally negligent homicide and gross negligence of an intoxicated adult for injecting a 75-year-old woman with the wrong drug in 2017. The patient, Charlene Murphey , died the next day in Vanderbilt. University Medical Center, according to The Associated Press.

Vaught fully admitted what happened to hospital staff at the time of the event, his attorney said in opening statements at the trial.

Vaught did what she was supposed to do — report her mistake so it can be avoided in the future — and her unintentional medical error shouldn’t be considered a crime, said Janie Harvey Garner, founder of Show Me Your Stethoscope, an advocacy and support group. for nurses.

Such cases have always been handled with administrative discipline, resulting in the suspension or revocation of the nurse’s license, Garner noted. It is “unheard of” that a nurse’s unintentional error should be prosecuted as a crime, she added.

“No one comes to work and decides to kill a patient that day, except someone who really needs to be in jail, like a serial killer nurse,” Garner told TODAY.

“Nurses won’t admit to medical errors anymore if they can go to jail…it’s going to make the hospital really less safe for patients.”

The American Nurses Association said it was “deeply shocked” by the verdict.

“Health care delivery is very complex. It is inevitable that errors will occur and systems will fail. It is totally unrealistic to think otherwise. The criminalization of medical errors is troubling and this verdict sets a dangerous precedent,” he noted in a statement.

Punishing medical workers who make honest mistakes “drives issues into the shadows and diminishes patient safety,” the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses said.

“This case has further demoralized an already exhausted and overworked nursing workforce in the face of existing nursing shortages.”

Robyn Begley, chief nursing officer of the American Hospital Association, predicted the case would have a “chilling effect on the culture of safety in health care” as it would discourage medical staff from reporting mistakes.

“Gross negligence”

But the prosecutor’s office and the deceased woman’s family said it was the right decision.

“Our family is still traumatized and mourning the horrific death of mum. We are grateful that the District Attorney’s Office obtained justice for us in court,” Chandra Murphey, the patient’s daughter-in-law, said in a statement sent to TODAY.

“Radonda Vaught’s conviction by the jury was not an indictment against the nursing profession or the medical community. This matter was and always was about the gross negligence of Radonda Vaught which caused the death of Charlene Murphey,” the district attorney’s office said in the statement.

TODAY has contacted Vaught representatives for comment, but has not received a response.

Murphey was taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center with bleeding in her brain on Christmas in 2017, according to the prosecution’s opening statements during the trial. As she was about to have a PET scan, she was prescribed Versed, an anxiety-relieving drug, because she was claustrophobic and afraid to step into the tube-shaped machine, according to statements. preliminary.

But Vaught instead injected him with vecuronium, a paralyzing drug given only when a patient is intubated because it leaves a person unable to breathe, the prosecution said.

In an interview with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Vaught said she couldn’t find Versed in Murphey’s profile when she picked him up from an automated drug dispensing cabinet. So she bypassed the system, typed in “VE” and selected the first drug, vecuronium, from the list.

She admitted she shouldn’t have overridden the system, even though it was common to do so, and that she should have recognized the difference between the two drugs, according to the TBI report.

Radonda Vaught, Peter Strianse
Vaught wipes away tears after a court hearing in 2019. “Mrs. Murphey’s family is at the forefront of my thoughts every day,’ she told The Associated Press after the jury’s verdict last month. “You don’t do something that impacts a family like this, that impacts a life, and carry that burden with you.” Mark Humphrey/AP

After Murphey was injected with the wrong drug, she quickly became paralyzed — awake, but unable to move and call for help — and suffocated for 30 minutes, District Attorney General Glenn Funk said in a statement. . She was found unconscious and died the next day, Funk said.

Funk described 18 cases “amounting to gross negligence” that resulted in Murphey’s death, including Vaught bypassing the system, never visually checking the medication, ignoring the sticker that read “Warning: Paralyzing Agent and not monitoring the patient’s reaction to the drug.

But Vaught’s attorney argued it’s common for nurses at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to make waivers to address the “systemic problem” of the hospital’s various software systems not communicating with each other. Vanderbilt University Medical Center declined to comment for this story.

A full timeline of the complicated events of the case has been published by the Nashville Tennessean.

A spokesperson for the National Patient Advocate Foundation, an organization that helps patients advocate for affordable, quality medical care, declined to comment on this particular case, but said she hears every year from families who have lost a loved one to medical malpractice.

“On their behalf, I think it’s dismissive to call something that results in death just a mistake that shouldn’t have real consequences,” Caitlin Donovan told TODAY.

“That being said, I hope the long-term consequences of this case will be increased staffing, more reasonable hours and other safety measures.”

The record of medical errors

More than 250,000 people in the United States die each year from what a Johns Hopkins study identifies as medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, the study finds. .

Healthcare workers are taught never to be afraid to report an error through a practice called Just Culture, said Garner, the founder of Show Me Your Stethoscope.

The focus is on finding the cause of the error and how to fix it so it doesn’t happen again, rather than punishing someone.

“Most of the time, no one will know that a medication error has been made. Any near-miss I’ve ever had, I’ve reported it myself because it’s important to do so to fix the system,” she noted.

Vault made a “glaring mistake,” but she was the scapegoat for systemic shortcomings, Garner said. Hospitals are faced with broken technology, forcing nurses to work around, which needs to change to avoid medical errors, Garner noted.

She spoke to nurses who quit their jobs after the verdict because they were afraid they would go to jail for making an unintentional mistake, she said.

“Vaught was not judged by a jury of her peers because her peers would have been 12 critical care nurses,” Garner noted. “Her punishment should be that she can no longer practice as a nurse.”

Vaught will be sentenced on May 13. She faces three to six years in prison for gross negligence and one to two years for criminally negligent homicide.

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