Bite-Size Science: Guilty verdict for former nurse RaDonda Vaught raises questions about the future of truth-telling in medicine

A nurse was found guilty of gross neglect and negligent homicide last month in a high-profile medical error case that some health care professionals argue could set a bleak precedent for mistakes in medicine.

RaDonda Vaught was working as a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center when, on Dec. 26, 2017, she made a mistake that resulted in the death of her patient, Charlene Murphey. Murphey had been admitted to the neurological ICU at Vanderbilt two days earlier and was prescribed the medication Versed, a sedative for her claustrophobia-related anxiety, before undergoing a positron emission tomography scan. Vaught was tasked with retrieving and administering the medication but mistakenly grabbed vecuronium bromide, a powerful paralytic. After injecting the medication, Vaught left Murphey. Later, Murphey was found not breathing, resuscitated and pronounced brain dead.

In court, the prosecution painted Vaught as uncaring and described her as worse than a drunk driver for her lack of responsibility. Despite that, Vaught took immediate responsibility for her actions and owned up to her mistake. In the process of administering the medication, there were indications of a mistake, namely that vecuronium bromide is a powder while Versed is a liquid and that a red warning label on the vecuronium bromide bottle designates it as a paralyzing agent.

On March 25, 2022, Vaught was found guilty of negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult.

Nurses and medical professionals around the country watched the trial closely, with some fearing that the case would set a precedent of regarding medical errors as criminal acts. Vaught worries that her verdict will establish a message against truth-telling in medicine, and expressed concern to CBS News that others in similar positions may “be wary about coming forward to tell the truth. I don’t think the take-away from this is not to be honest and truthful.” While the prosecution argued that the case was against one individual, not the general nursing community, the verdict raises questions about truth-telling and subsequent self-incrimination by health care professionals. Vaught is currently awaiting her sentencing hearing on May 13.

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