RaDonda, a former Tennessee nurse, was sentenced to three-years of supervised probation. She had been convicted in March for making a fatal medication mistake in 2017. This led to the death of a patient she was caring for. Vaught’s sentencing and conviction, which were imposed for the type of error that is common in U.S. health care institutions, is not being sent to prison.
This is a far cry from William Husel’s fate . He was acquitted in April of murder for ordering 10 times more painkiller fentanyl than he would ordinarily order for critically ill patients. Husel ordered an excessive amount of medication for patients throughout their lives, from their 30s to their 80s, with various ailments, including pneumonia and cancer.
In both cases, our first thought goes to the families that have suffered the consequences of these circumstances. They will not be able to bring their loved ones back or provide relief from their pain, no matter how much compensation, prison time or settlement money.
These two cases, however, highlight the injurious and unfair difference in standards for nurses and physicians. Vaught committed a grave mistake when she gave Versed, a sedative, to her patient instead of an injection of Vecuronium. This muscle relaxant left the woman, 75, unable to breathe. Vaught was a Vanderbilt University Medical Center intern. This hospital allowed her to use the safety precautions that many health systems have.
No matter how one judged Vaught’s actions or that of the health system, the outcome was due to an error. Vaught did not intend to harm her patient, as no one has suggested.
This contrasts with Husel’s case, where he knew the exact consequences of ordering large amounts of fentanyl. It was not a medical mistake; it was a series intentional actions that he knew would accelerate the death of patients under his care. It doesn’t matter what reason he had, it wasn’t within his power as a physician who took an oath to “do no harm” to have someone die.
The nurse who committed a grave mistake was convicted and sentenced to prison. A physician who knew that he had caused the deaths of many patients was acquitted. This picture is incorrect. It doesn’t really matter if Husel claimed he was relieving their suffering, which we don’t know because he didn’t testify. It was not his decision that they should die quickly.
In closing arguments , the Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor David Ziegen stated that “Even though their death is certain as the sun rises in the morning, if they haveten that along, it is their death in law’s eyes.”
It is a puzzle. Is the nurse considered “more guilty” when compared to the public’s view of nurses? Since 1999, nursing has been at the top of the most trusted professions. Is the public more likely to believe that Vaught’s unintentional error was an insult to trust than a doctor who deliberately caused harm?
It is a sad fact that nurses who make errors in the performance of their jobs are likely to be discouraged from nursing, even though the U.S. has a critical shortage. Importantly, for nurses who make mistakes, which is common in the profession, even if they aren’t practicing for long enough, such prosecutions will discourage doctors, nurses, and all health care workers from reporting them.
Double standards such as this will only undo the 20-year progress in patient safety and quality care that was first described by the Institute of Medicine in its 1999 landmark report “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” Convicting nurses for making grave errors versus acquitting physicians who deliberately cause harm is against the very purpose of creating a culture of safety.