The Call to Decriminalize Medication Errors

A Virginia jury recently found former nurse RaDonda Vaught guilty of negligent homicide for mistakenly injecting a 75-year-old woman with the wrong medication and causing her death, along with a second charge of gross neglect of an impaired adult. The verdict has already prompted a call to decriminalize medication errors by many in the healthcare industry.

Prosecutors initially charged Vaught with criminally negligent homicide, but the jury chose the lesser charges. The trial was closely watched in the medical community — and now some healthcare professionals fear it will have a chilling effect on patient safety investigations.

Investigations revealed Vaught injected the patient with the paralytic drug vecuronium instead of sedating drug Versed in December 2017. On May 13, Vaught was sentenced three years of probation.

Initially, the hospital did not disclose the patient’s death was related to a medical error when it reported the death to the county medical examiner. An anonymous whistleblower reported the fatal error in 2018, prompting an investigation by CMS.

After the CMS report, Vaught was indicted, arrested, and charged with criminal reckless homicide and impaired adult abuse. The hospital fired her, and the Tennessee Board of Nursing revoked her license after a hearing in which she testified she had been “complacent” and “distracted” during the incident.

Prosecutors alleged Vaught made 10 separate errors, including overlooking multiple warning signs. Court records claim that to use the medication, she would have had to look directly at a warning saying “Warning: Paralyzing agent.”

After the verdict, the American Nurses Association (ANA) and Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA) released a joint statement critical of the result, noting “the criminalization of medical errors is unnerving, and this verdict sets into motion a dangerous precedent. … We are deeply distressed by this verdict and the harmful ramifications of criminalizing the honest reporting of mistakes. This ruling will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.”

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices also criticized the verdict in a statement headlined Criminalization of Human Error and a Guilty Verdict: A Travesty of Justice that Threatens Patient Safety. Healthcare workers across the county are anxiously awaiting the impact this outcome will have on the healthcare industry, with the call to decriminalize medication errors.

Multiple Safety Measures Ignored

Prosecutors must have been motivated by the fact the nurse made a series of serious errors rather than one mistake that might be more easily understood, says Carol Michel, JD, partner with Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial in Atlanta.

“We don’t want to make criminals out of medical providers who are human beings, too,” she says. “They do make mistakes. Traditionally, that has been dealt with through the licensing boards and civil lawsuits. What sets this case apart is just the number of ways this nurse seemed to go around or defy the safeguards that were in place.”

The important lesson might be for hospitals to ensure proper dispensing safeguards and to properly train employees on …read more

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