Soaps paint far too rosy a picture of coma

December 22, 2005

American soap operas paint an improbably rosy picture of coma patients' survival and recovery, says a study in this week's BMJ, with potentially important consequences for viewers.

Tracking storylines containing coma patients over 10 years, researchers found that soap opera patients were far more likely to survive a coma than in real life. And they were also much more likely to emerge unscathed.

Only 8% of soapland patients died during coma for instance, compared with 50% upwards in real life. And all those who did survive recovered fully from their comas, while realistically just one in ten would regain their previous health - usually after months of intense rehabilitation, say the authors.

Such unrealistic outcomes have implications for viewers' expectations when dealing with family members or partners in comas, or if recovering from comas themselves. Television storylines have substantial influence on viewers, say the authors. American soaps reach 40 million viewers in the US alone and are broadcast in 90 countries worldwide - a huge audience for convincing health messages.

Although families of coma patients are not often faced with decisions over life-sustaining treatment, when needed such decisions are difficult and shrouded in uncertainty, say the authors. It may not be helpful to have unrealistic expectations of a patient's survival - leading to disagreements between doctors and families which often end up in the courts.

While soap storylines are not written to reflect real life, say the authors, the media in general should balance stories of improbable survival and recovery with compelling and compassionate stories of characters who die with comfort and dignity.
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BMJ

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