A Look at the Ex-Vanderbilt Nurse Trial: From Mistake to Crime

For the past couple of weeks, all eyes have been on RaDonda Vaught, the former nurse from Vanderbilt who has been indicted on reckless homicide and abuse of an impaired adult charges after a lengthy case that started in 2017. The trial has been closely watched by all healthcare personnel, and the results may bring forth a new – and terrifying– future for medical professionals. 

The History Behind RaDonda Vaught’s Case 

On December 26th, 2017, Charlene Murphey, a 75-year-old patient at Vanderbilt, is accidentally administered a dose of the paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed, which left her unable to breathe and brain dead. The next day, Murphey’s family removes her from life support, and she passes away. 

There are many circumstances that led to this mistake. For one, Vanderbilt’s electronic medication cabinet had been delaying medication distribution, which required nurses to override the system on a daily basis. After this medical error, Vaught reported and admitted to the hospital that she is responsible for the medical error. However, the two Vanderbilt neurologists who reported Murphey’s death did not mention the medical error, and Vanderbilt officials took steps to hide the medication error from the government and the public. The Murphey family forgave Vaught, and Vanderbilt reached an out-of-court settlement with Murphey’s family. 

The Case of RaDonda Vaught 

In 2018, an anonymous tip brought the incident to light, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Tennessee Department of Health, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation all began investigations. This investigation brought the incident to light, and after CMS threatened to withhold services from Vanderbilt, the facility updated their processes to prevent this incident from happening again. At first, Vaught’s case was closed with no action, but then the health department revoked her nursing license. In 2019, RaDonda Vaught was arrested and charged with reckless homicide and abuse, and later, the Tennessee Department of Health reversed its decision to not pursue professional discipline against her. 

Vaught faced a professional discipline hearing and a criminal trial. While Vaught admits that she made a mistake, she argues that her mistake was a result of Vanderbilt procedures. Vanderbilt’s automated system was having issues during that time, and the hospital’s solution was to use override codes for medicine. A lead investigator did find Vanderbilt had a “heavy burden of responsibility” for the medical error, but the investigation against her also alleged that Vaught made 10 separate errors administering  the wrong medication to Murphey. 

On March 25th, 2022, a jury convicted RaDonda Vaught of negligent homicide and abuse, prompting outrage and fear from the medical industry 

What Does This Mean for Healthcare Professionals? 

Medical mistakes unfortunately happen quite often in the healthcare industry. Physicians and nurses are prone to making human errors, and the current environment in healthcare will only increase mistakes. Staffing shortages have plagued the industry, and the lack of staff has been exacerbated during the pandemic. With more patients and fewer personnel, healthcare professionals have had to increase their workload and their hours, which will only make them more susceptible to errors. 

RaDonda Vaught’s criminal charges might change how medical errors and healthcare personnel are implicated, and it is a terrifying future for many. Some think that the ability to criminally charge medical professionals for medical errors would deter future nurses and physicians from entering the field while others feel that this prosecution sets a dangerous precedent. If people are scared to report their medical errors due to this trial, hospitals will lose the chance to improve their processes and policies, which does a disservice to patients.  

However, the District Attorney Office cited Vaught’s neglect as the reason for the prosecution in a statement.  The conviction is not an indictment against the medical community, and the jury felt that the verdict was justified due to the low level of care displayed by Vaught. Still, many think Vaught was the scapegoat chosen to take the fall for Vanderbilt. 

RaDonda Vaught’s case caught the eye of every medical professional, and many nurses supported Vaught. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the case only left people with more questions. Why was Vanderbilt not prosecuted? What are the ramifications of Vaught’s sentencing on the medical industry? And when does a medical error become a crime? 

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