American soap operas paint an improbably rosy picture of coma patients' survival and recovery, with potentially important consequences for viewers , says a study.
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.
For instance, only 8% of soap land patients died during coma, compared with over 50% in real life. And all those who did survive recovered fully from their comas, while in real life just one in ten would regain their previous health - that too after months of intense rehabilitation, say the authors in a report in the BMJ.
Such unrealistic outcomes in soap operas have implications for viewers' expectations while dealing with family members or partners in comas, or if recovering from comas themselves. Television storylines have substantial influence on viewers. 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. Having unrealistic expectations of a patient's survival does not help, leading to disagreements between doctors and families that 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, which die with comfort and dignity.