A coma is a serious health complication that often requires loved ones to make hard decisions about artificial nutrition and other forms of life sustaining treatment. Therefore, it is important for the public to have realistic expectations concerning the outcomes of a coma. People’s health knowledge is influenced by a variety of factors, including mass media. One form of media, the soap opera, often portrays characters in comas. But do the experiences of these comatose soap characters paint too rosy a picture?

A new study in the December 24-31, 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal investigated outcomes of comas portrayed in soap operas, and found that they are, in general, overly optimistic.

About the Study

Researchers tracked the storylines of nine soap operas shown in the US for over 10 years. In the 64 instances of coma they identified, the researchers determined the cause of the coma (non-traumatic or traumatic), and classified the recoveries as: good recovery, moderate disability, severe disability, persistent vegetative state, or death. Then they compared survival rates on the soaps to the experience of real coma patients.

Fifty-seven patients recovered fully, five died, and two remained in a vegetative state. The outcomes in soap opera coma patients were significantly better than those in real-life patients. For instance, only about 5% of soap opera patients died, compared with more than half of real-life patients. In addition, soap opera patients had about a 90% chance of returning to normal function, compared with the less than 10% chance in real-life patients.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings demonstrate that soap operas do not accurately portray the seriousness of a coma. Although many soap opera viewers realize that the storylines do not accurately reflect the real world, the coma outcomes portrayed in soap operas may still affect viewers’ expectations of what will happen in real life.

Health professionals would have an easier time if soap opera writers would make an effort to more accurately portray outcomes of coma patients. But since the appeal of this genre is based on its far-out storylines, this is not going to happen anytime soon. To gain a more realistic picture of health outcomes, resist the urge to rely on fictitious media for your health information. The unfortunate truth is that if you know someone in a coma, particularly a persistent one, he or she is unlikely to ever be the same.