Pandemic, Criminal Conviction Resulting from Nurse’s Mistake Raises Concerns for Future Healthcare Workers
By Victoria May
Hot on the heels of the conviction of a Tennessee nurse at another university medical center, University of Texas at Austin nursing students are wary of joining healthcare workers already stretched to the limit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
RaDonda Vaught injected Charlene Murphey with an incorrect drug and failed to monitor her, resulting in Murphey’s death. Vaught, a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was convicted in Nashville of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide. In May, she was sentenced to three years probation without having to serve jail time.
“The jury’s conviction of Radonda Vaught was not an indictment against the nursing profession or the medical community,” the Nashville district attorney’s office said in a statement. “The jury found a series of decisions were made by Vaught to ignore her nursing training, and instead, failed to adhere to safety protocols that proved to be fatal.”
It is incredibly rare for a nurse to be criminally prosecuted over a medical error instead of simply losing their license, Ascension Seton nurse Alayna Flolid of Austin said.
Many nurses are taking issue with the verdict because it has eroded trust between nurses and their organizations when it comes to reporting their mistakes.
“Because of this new ruling, nurses are scared to go and report the mistakes that they made,” Flolid said. They don’t know if the hospital they work for will have their back. Without these mistakes getting reported, patients’ lives could be lost just because of the nurse’s fear that they might get fired and go to jail.”
Other nurses, such as University of Texas professor and St. David’s staff nurse Sharon Carter, took issue with the lack of support Vanderbilt Medical Center provided for its employees.
“That case brought to light something nurses didn’t ever think about: They were expendable by their organization,” said Carter. “That organization failed RaDonda. Mistakes happen, and nobody is denying that she made a mistake. When the facility decided to turn their back on her instead of looking into the hospital’s policies and procedures that could have been instrumental in her making a mistake, that’s when the system failed.”
According to Carter, nurses may need to override physician approval in their computerized medication cabinet, Pyxis, in emergency situations in order to give patients necessary medication as quickly as possible. Vaught’s medication error was a result of using Pyxis to authorize the wrong medication.
However, the verdict is causing some nurses to second-guess themselves, potentially delaying the administration of lifesaving medication.
“You’ve got to get the meds because it’s between life and death,” Carter said. “I still want to do that, but unfortunately some of my colleagues don’t know if they can. And I don’t fault them for that. You have to do what’s best for you, but at the same time you want to do what’s best for the patients, right?”
Between the ruling and harsh working conditions due to COVID, some nursing students are beginning to reconsider what type of nursing they want to specialize in or whether they even want to go into the field, University of Texas at Austin nursing student Malvika Patil said.
“Every emergency room is understaffed right now, and then you have cases like RaDonda’s where they’re firing employees for making mistakes when the hospital is already hurting for more employees,” Malvika Patil said. “COVID really thinned out the number of nurses and healthcare employees, and cases like this that are causing even more people to leave are really making it worse for people that decide to stay and tough it out.”
Flolid also pointed to higher patient intake number as a result of COVID paired with diminishing staff as one explanation for the potential increase in mistakes made by healthcare professionals.
One in five healthcare workers have quit their jobs over the course of the pandemic, according to a report by Morning Consult.
Additionally, the demand for travel nurses during COVID, promising salaries ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per week, has contributed to the lack of consistent staffing numbers, Carter said.
“It’s scary,” Flolid said. “These hospitals want us to operate as efficiently as possible and not make mistakes, but we’re understaffed. One nurse alone is tending to more patients than they have ever had to before, and we’re expected to work as if we’re not physically and emotionally exhausted. And now we can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Though the future of nursing looks bleak for many, nurses like Carter recognize the importance of healthcare workers despite the trials of the job.
“I still just go in and do my job to the best of my ability,” Carter said. “Nursing comes from the heart of compassion and wanting to help the patients at their most vulnerable.”