Are All Medical Errors Now Crimes? The Nurse Vaught Verdict

Robert D. Glatter, MD; Megan L. Ranney, MD, MPH; Jane Barnsteiner, PhD, RN


April 13, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert D. Glatter, MD: Welcome! I'm Dr Robert Glatter, medical advisor for Medscape Emergency Medicine. Today we have a distinguished panel joining us to discuss an important legal decision resulting in a criminal conviction, involving a medical error due to administration of the wrong medication by a critical care nurse that led to a patient's death.

Joining us to discuss this case is Dr Megan Ranney, professor of emergency medicine and the academic dean at Brown University School of Public Health. Also joining us is Dr Jane Barnsteiner, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and an expert on patient safety, quality improvement, and system modeling. Welcome to both of you.

Jane Barnsteiner, PhD, RN: Thank you.

Megan L. Ranney, MD, MPH: Thank you. It's a joy to be with you.

Glatter: Let's discuss this very tragic case involving RaDonda Vaught, who was an ICU nurse who was recently convicted in Tennessee of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult. She accidentally administered a paralytic medication, vecuronium, instead of a sedative, Versed, which was ordered to sedate a 75-year-old patient who had a brain bleed and TBI. She was scheduled to have a PET scan. After receiving the wrong medication and not really being monitored in any true way, just being in the care of an MRI tech, she suffered cardiac arrest and subsequently died.

Dr Ranney, I want to begin with you. I saw on Twitter that you had written something that really stuck with me. I'll quote you. "A culture of safety is one in which the system that allowed the mistake to happen is changed, not one in which the individual is scapegoated. And a culture of safety correlates with better patient outcomes that we know. This verdict is the opposite."

I'll let you explain from here. The system issue is the medication dispensing cabinet, in my mind, and there was a medication override. The question is, how was this override allowed to occur in the first place?

Ranney: My goodness, overrides happen every single day across this country, dozens of times a day in any particular shift. I would think of the system as being much bigger than just the Pyxis or that kind of automated dispensing cabinet, but around the larger system of the verbal orders, the time pressures that the nurse is under, the fact that the nurses are with a trainee, the fact that they're being asked to operate outside of their normal environment by going down to MRI. There's a series of issues.

Just as we thought about the Swiss cheese model for COVID-19, that model originated when we talked about patient safety and medical errors. It is a Swiss cheese of circumstances that allows this type of tragic error to occur.

Many of us have worked for years on trying to change the system from one of punishing people, changing it from that punitive system, to rather a system where we can do root-cause analysis, allow people to disclose errors, and allow us to inquire as to what are those series of Swiss cheese holes that allowed this mistake or any other to happen.

When you punish people, you lead them to hide their mistakes instead of allowing them to disclose them and allowing that important inquiry to happen. That's why this is just so harmful to that culture of safety that so many of us are trying to create.

Glatter: It's a chilling verdict in so many ways. I'm right on the same page with you, having worked for so long in the emergency department and seeing nurses that are overtaxed, overburdened, but also on patient floors. This goes to an ICU-type environment where this woman was having a nonemergent head scan and required some sedation.

The question I want to get to is how the system allowed the nurse to dispense this medication —though she was distracted, she'll admit that. Jane, I want to get to you on this. How can we avoid this? What are the system checks that can be done in some fashion to make this safer and to avoid this tragic error?

Barnsteiner: First of all, I would say that you do not put in a major change, as they were doing with their EPIC system, as a big bank where you do the change through the entire organization. You do it in one area where you get the whole system smoothed out and all the errors taken care of so that you're not having a problem like they had through their entire organization, which required overrides multiple times a day.

One of the things that's been recommended is that these systems, like the Pyxis system, require the first five letters of a medication to be entered into the system so that when you have multiple medications where the first two letters are the same, the chances of pulling out the wrong medication are much smaller.

There's a question of whether this medication, vecuronium, should have even been in this machine. You can have high-alert medications like this in baggies that have written on the front of the bag, "This is a high-alert medication. It requires two independent double checks." These are all the things that will help alert the fatigued or distracted nurse or physician and will make things safer. There are many things that can be put into place.

Glatter: It's almost like a hard stop. This is a different class of medication. Even if the nurse had a lapse and didn't realize that, there should have been a hard stop asking whether you want this class. A sedative and a paralytic are two very different medications.

I'm not trying to assign any blame here. I'm just trying to look at mechanics of what happened and how we can put in place methods to avoid these types of errors where a system clearly is overtaxed and overburdened. Is it an artificial intelligence alert? Is it a pharmacy alert that goes out? Is it a Vocera message that gets triggered? It's something to stop the nurse from doing something where they know better.

She's used Versed before, apparently, and knows it's a liquid and doesn't have to be reconstituted. In my mind, as a practicing doctor for a long time, I see this and I see how it can happen. There are ways I think we can address it. Megan, I want to bring you into this and get your viewpoint.

Ranney: We're working in an environment right now — and obviously, this happened pre-COVID — where medicines are constantly in short supply and we're constantly dealing with substitutions of one for another. This has worsened during COVID, but it existed in the pre-COVID era as well. We'd have time periods where, like today, we're out of D50 and we have to use D10, or we have a different formulation of a common antibiotic.

I could totally imagine that this nurse had been exposed to multiple medication substitution and so they were rushing; they thought, well, they just put one thing in instead of another and didn't make that kind of cognitive connection.

What we know so well from our studies of human factors, engineering, and the way that systems work is that when someone is cognitively overloaded and constantly having to think outside the box and make decisions, particularly when they're exposed to a new system for ordering medicine, there's only so much that the brain can do at a time. This person was set up for this type of error.

Again, not to say that they didn't do something wrong. That's why we have a civil system. That's why we have licensing. That's why we have malpractice. To call this a criminal error when they were working within a system that had all these other problems where they were constantly having to make do for system failures, it's almost inevitable that at some point something really horrible happened.

I'm sorry that it was this nurse, and how horrible for the patient and the family. I'm not excusing that. You can totally imagine, as a practicing physician, nurse, or anyone else in the healthcare system, how this happened.

Barnsteiner: The other part of it was that they did not have in place, at this time, the barcoding system in this particular patient area. What nurses are used to doing is when they have to pull a medication, they're using the barcoding system to coordinate with what's in the electronic health record, with the medication, and with the person's ID band.

Those are all well-known safety checks that obviously were used to being used by this nurse in the critical care unit but that weren't available in this MRI area. That is something that absolutely is a system failure. Those kinds of safety systems have to be available at any place in a health system where medications are being delivered.

Glatter: I think that's an important point. Here, we have a technology that can supersede the ability of a human to make a mistake, and to have that in place is very critical. I want to go back to the idea of medical malpractice vs homicide charges.

Megan, you made a point of this. This nurse is now an example of someone who went to trial and was convicted, and it could have a chilling effect on healthcare providers. Pre-COVID, post-COVID, it is just chilling. It makes people want to leave the field. It causes PTSD. The psychiatric downstream effects of such an error are just immense.

I don't know how the district attorney went for criminal charges here. I'm not an attorney and we don't have a legal expert with us. For this to have happened is just setting precedent that it's okay to have the effect of making so many people leave the field.

Ranney: I'm not a lawyer, but I've certainly been on the front lines, not only for the past 2 years during COVID but for almost 20 years prior to that. I will say that these types of errors are never-events that sit with our colleagues and friends for their entire career. No one goes into medicine intending to hurt someone. The system fails us and fails the patient.

There are certainly examples of intentional harm, and those people deserve to be prosecuted. This type of thing where a system let them down, again, should require an inquiry of the system. Don't punish the individuals to the point of putting them in jail.

I think about my last few months working in the emergency department and what my nurses, in particular, have said to me. They worry that they're going to lose their license and their ability to practice because of the horrific circumstances that we've been working in — the understaffing, the lack of access to standard medications, the long wait times, and on and on. They're not able to take care of patients the way that they've been taught to do.

They're worried already about the downstream effects on their sense of self, as well as on their ability to maintain their livelihood. When you put something like this on top of it, where again, an unintentional error that was potentiated by a somewhat broken system or by a series of Swiss cheese holes that just happened to line up, what message does that send to my nursing colleagues who have stayed on the front lines and who know that they have not been able to provide the standard of care that they're used to?

Barnsteiner: On Friday, I did a program on fair and just culture with three health systems and a university school of nursing. Already, some of the faculty reported that students are talking about transferring to another major outside of the School of Nursing because of their worry about this particular guilty verdict.

The other thing is that we already have a tremendous shortage of nurses. We've seen many people leave the profession or retire in the past couple of years, and this is only going to compound it further. It is a sobering message that the public can't afford to have, actually, because this will impact the quality of care and the safety of care that can be delivered to people and families as a result of not having sufficient numbers of professionals to deliver care.

Glatter: That's such an important point. In any high-reliability organization, a culture of safety is key. There are tenets we try to adhere to. When we have people leaving the field after seeing a case like this, it's chilling. We have to re-educate the public and we need to have a realignment of how errors are handled.

This is just the beginning. Her sentencing is going to be in about a month, and we'll see what happens on reckless homicide charges and neglect. I think there's going to be a follow-up to this and we're going to need to discuss this more.

I just wanted to get a couple of takeaways for our audience to just really sear in the brain what we can learn from such an event.

Ranney: The big takeaway, to me, is the importance of us both continuing to use our voices and working across professional boundaries to help to create this culture of safety, one in which we all feel safe and supported in advocating for systems that work for us. We cannot ask nurses, respiratory technicians, radiology technicians, physicians, or anyone else within the healthcare system to work unsupported, and we have to recognize the degree to which we are all interdependent. My biggest takeaway is for us to use our voices together.

Barnsteiner: The takeaway that I would have from this, and what I'm working with a number of health systems on, is to have the chair of the board, the CEO of the hospital, the chief medical officer, and the chief nursing officer together promulgate a statement that is sent out to all employees to discuss this verdict and to say what they're doing to promote a high-reliability organization and a fair and just culture. They should also ask for open conversation and for employees to let the top leadership know any concerns that they have about vulnerabilities in the system. It's extremely important right now with this verdict that the leaders in healthcare settings, as well as in education settings, let people know what they'll be doing to protect their employees.

Glatter: Jane and Megan, I want to thank you so much for such an important discussion that was very informative. I think there's going to be a follow-up to this that'll be very, very important. Thanks again.

Robert D. Glatter, MD, is assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, New York. He is an editorial advisor and hosts the Hot Topics in EM series on Medscape. He is also a medical contributor for Forbes.

Megan Ranney, MD, MPH, is professor of emergency medicine and the academic dean at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. She is the director and founder of the Brown Emergency Digital Health Innovation (eDHI) program. She is also chief research officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine, the country's only nonprofit committed to reducing firearm injury through the public health approach, and a founding partner of, dedicated to matching donors to health systems in need of protective equipment.

Jane Barnsteiner, PhD, RN, is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and an expert on patient safety, quality improvement, and system modeling. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she was director of translational research at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Jane was one of the developers of the Quality and Safety in Education for Nurses (QSEN) initiative and is co-editor of Quality and Safety in Nursing: A Competency Based Approach to Improving Outcomes, published by Wiley.

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