The fear of prison time may the latest thing making healthcare workers wonder if they're better off in another line of work.
Former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse RaDonda Vaught was sentenced to three years in prison but granted probation Friday for committing a medication error that killed a patient. In March, a jury convicted Vaught of negligent homicide and abusing an impaired adult when she accidentally administered the wrong drug to 75-year-old Charlene Murphey in 2017. On Friday, a judge in Nashville, Tennessee, handed down the sentence for those felonies.
Former nurse RaDonda Vaught gets probation for fatal drug error
Legal experts don't expect the Vaught case to trigger more criminal prosecutions of healthcare professionals who make errors, but seeing a colleague nearly sent to prison has shaken workers, including those in the crowd gathered outside the Nashville courthouse to protest.
"Nurses don't need to go to prison for doing our jobs. We were heroes two years ago, and now are being threatened with going to jail," Bobbi Martin, a nurse and president of the Global Nurse Network, said at the rally. "We need the support from the public to make sure that they know what we do is dangerous every day, and that the hospitals that employ us put us in this situation."
Criminal convictions of nurses like Vaught mark a departure from the typical disciplinary pathway via state licensing boards.
"This adds another layer of burden to our already exhausted clinical team," said Janet Tomcavage, executive vice president and chief nurse executive at Geisinger.
While the case will spur communication that hopefully improves patient safety, punishing employees doesn't solve systemic problems, industry leaders and workers said. Healthcare professionals, already plagued by stressful working environments and staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, say they are afraid to do their jobs.
"It will make nurses more scared," said Tanya Leshko, an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. "The way you make patients safer is to improve systems. What they did here, for whatever reason, is approach an individual incident in a very punitive manner."
Nurses are expected to do more with less and don't feel supported by their employers, said Maria Nunez, an intensive care nurse at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, California, and a member of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals.
"They only care about productivity, moving patients out and whatever is most cost-effective for them," Nunez said. "Things have gotten worse."
Many of her peers have stepped away from nursing because of burnout or fear of making a mistake, Nunez said. She has considered taking time off to rethink her own career after 20 years in the field, she said.