Michael C. Hennenberg

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Should medical errors be grounds for prosecution?

There is no doubt among health care professionals in Ohio that medical errors are extremely serious. NPR cites an estimate that they may be the third leading cause of death in the United States. However, if you are a provider who makes a mistake that results in harm to a patient, you generally will not face criminal charges on account of it. On the rare occasions when providers do face charges, there is usually an indication that the provider was intoxicated or demonstrated malicious intent. 

Professionals in the medical field, including a director of the American Nurses Association, believe that it is best to address medical errors in a way that is not punitive. Otherwise, a provider may be less likely to report the error out of fear of retribution. Nevertheless, a recent high-profile case in which a district attorney filed criminal charges against a nurse for mistakenly administering the wrong medication to a patient who died as a result could set a new precedent. 

The incident occurred in December 2017 at a hospital in Tennessee. The patient was to receive an imaging scan, and the doctor prescribed Versed, an anti-anxiety medication, to help her relax. Allegedly, the nurse mistakenly grabbed the paralytic drug vecuronium from the dispensing cabinet instead. On the following day, the patient died in intensive care. 

The nurse reportedly administered the dose after overriding the safety mechanism in the dispensing machine, which prompted the district attorney to press criminal charges. This occurred after federal and state agencies conducted their own investigations into the incident and decided not to revoke the nurse's license, instead emphasizing the responsibility of the hospital to ensure patient safety. 

Experts in the field of patient safety have expressed concern that taking a more punitive approach to medical errors may result in a reluctance to report them. As a result, hospitals may actually become less safe for patients without transparency about medical errors. 

The information in this article is not intended as legal advice but provided for educational purposes only.

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