'A backward step for patient safety': Medical groups respond to RaDonda Vaught sentencing

RaDonda Vaught was sentenced to three years of supervised probation May 13 for a fatal medication error she made in 2017 while working as a nurse at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In remarks made during the sentencing hearing, Ms. Vaught expressed concerns over what her case means for clinicians and patient safety reporting. 

"This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how [nurses] proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to someone's attention," she said. "I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety." 

Numerous medical organizations expressed similar concerns in statements circulated after Ms. Vaught's sentencing. Four such responses are below.

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses: "The criminal conviction and sentencing of a nurse for a medication error is a backward step for patient safety," the organization said in a May 13 statement. "Although Vaught received probation, her criminal conviction and three-year sentence may lead clinicians to think twice about such open reporting of errors. This case has placed patient safety at risk and has further demoralized an already exhausted and overworked nursing workforce in the face of existing nurse staffing shortages."

American Nurses Association and Tennessee Nurses Association: "We are grateful to the judge for demonstrating leniency in the sentencing of nurse Vaught. Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among skilled, well-meaning and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals," the organizations said in a May 13 statement, adding that the criminalization of medical errors will not preserve safe care environments. Healthcare organizations must have structures with a full and confidential peer review process to review errors, make system improvements and create corrective plans, according to the ANA and the TNA. 

"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 organizations said. 

Patient Safety Movement Foundation: "To achieve our goal of zero patient harm and death from preventable medical errors, we need to foster a culture where leadership of hospitals and healthcare organizations support healthcare workers and encourage them to share near misses," the group said in an emailed statement to Becker's on May 13. "Healthcare workers are human and healthcare systems need to ensure there are appropriate processes in place to provide their staff with a safe and reliable working environment so they can provide their patients with the best care. Only by identifying potential problems and learning from them can change occur."

Robyn Begley, DNP, RN, chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association and CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership: "When errors happen, hospitals and health systems need open lines of communication to identify and understand the series of events so they can update patient safety systems to further prevent errors," she said in a May 13 statement. "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."

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