Emma Moore felt cornered. At a community health clinic in Portland, Ore., the 29-year-old nurse practitioner said she felt overwhelmed and undertrained. Coronavirus patients flooded the clinic for two years, and Moore struggled to keep up.
Then the stakes became clear. On March 25, about 2,400 miles away in a Tennessee courtroom, former nurse RaDonda Vaught was convicted of two felonies and now faces eight years in prison for a fatal medication mistake.
Like many nurses, Moore wondered if that could be her. She’d made medication errors before, although none so grievous. But what about the next one? In the pressure cooker of pandemic-era health care, another mistake felt inevitable.
Four days after Vaught’s verdict, Moore quit. She said the verdict contributed to her decision.
“It’s not worth the possibility or the likelihood that this will happen,” Moore said, “if I’m in a situation where I’m set up to fail.” In the wake of Vaught’s trial ― an extremely rare case of a health care worker being criminally prosecuted for a medical error ― nurses and nursing organizations have condemned the verdict through tens of thousands of social media posts, shares, comments and videos. They warn that the fallout will ripple through their profession, demoralizing and depleting the ranks of nurses already stretched thin by the pandemic. Ultimately, they say, it will worsen health care for all.
Statements from the American Nurses Association, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and the National Medical Association each said Vaught’s conviction set a “dangerous precedent.” Linda Aiken, a nursing and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that although Vaught’s case is an “outlier,” it will make nurses less forthcoming about mistakes.
“One thing that everybody agrees on is it’s going to have a dampening effect on the reporting of errors or near misses, which then has a detrimental effect on safety,” Aiken said. “The only way you can really learn about errors in these complicated systems is to have