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Why the RaDonda Vaught case is a rallying cry to improve nursing staffing models

ust when you thought the nursing shortage couldn’t get any worse, a decision by a Tennessee jury deepened the national crisis. When RaDonda Vaught was convicted in March for a fatal medical mistake, many nurses across the country considered it the final straw. 

“The RaDonda case could have been any one of us who was busy, tired, overwhelmed, and trying to do the right thing,” Christen Bryce, RN, a New York-based mental health and substance abuse nurse, told Becker’s.

In advance of her sentencing in May, Vaught received an outpouring of support from nurses and labor unions. The final verdict: no jail time. Vaught received a diverted sentence, which means that the charges can eventually be wiped from her record if she meets the terms of her probation.

But this is small consolation to the many nurses who heard about the prosecution and started making “exit plans.” The medical error case ignited a firestorm of debate in the healthcare community, with plenty of finger-pointing to go around. One of the flashpoints: the case has shined a light on the critical need to improve staffing models.

According to the CDC, death by medical error or accident is the nation’s leading cause of accidental death. The number is so high that it exceeds all other causes of accidental death combined.

And research clearly shows that a heavy nursing workload puts patient safety in danger.

A 2019 study revealed that a patient’s risk of post-care-associated infection increased by 15% in facilities with low hospital staffing levels. Another study correlated an 8.9% decrease in pneumonia infections among surgical patients to an increase of one additional work hour per patient per RN.

Nurses are stretched to the max, and there’s a growing awareness of the need for systemwide workforce and safety reforms.

“Rather than criminally prosecuting a nurse, we should be cross-examining the healthcare system that understaffs its floors and overworks its nurses, making room for tragedies like this to happen,” said Rebecca Love, MSN, RN, chief clinical officer of IntelyCare, a nursing agency, in Becker’s.

Heavy nursing workloads create a perpetual cycle of negativity. They damage nursing job satisfaction, increasing feelings of burnout. Which contributes to high nursing turnover. Which adds to the nursing shortage. Which impacts patient safety.

Also read: Cracks in the 12-hour shift: Some retired nurses would return for 6-hour shifts

The solution to the complex crisis of medical errors isn’t simple, but it starts with rethinking systematic processes at the organizational level. Individuals can’t implement systemic change, but management can.

So it is managers who must see the connection between redesigning the systems that lead to medical errors like the one made by RaDonda Vaught and the ability to retain nurses. And then managers must do something about it.

But what?

Implementing new systems doesn’t have to start with a revolution. It does, however, require an investment of interest in preventing unnecessary harm. Small steps to improve staffing models are a great start. 

Modern AI staffing tools enable far greater flexibility in staffing. These data-driven approaches to staffing depart from the rigid models that treat nurses like pieces on a chess board serving only the interests of hospitals. Instead, these tools recognize the “whole person” that each nurse actually is, empowering them to have some control over their work and lives.

That control enables reduced working hours and shorter shifts for those who want it. Decreased burnout will also decrease medical errors and increase patient safety.

Also read:ER staffing coverage woes? Data shows the solution is strategic deployment, not new hires

The Vaught case has, ironically, given managers an added incentive to rethink systems, including those surrounding nursing workloads. With nurses like Vaught now carrying the liability of medical error on their individual shoulders, there’s even more downside to entering and remaining in the field.  

Nurses are at the breaking point, and they must have better working conditions and work-life balance. The safety of patients depends on it.