Film comas unrealistic

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: August 11th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It’s hard to make health-care decisions when a loved one is in a coma.

Not only are powerful emotions in play, chances are almost everything we know about comas comes from the movies.

But films aren’t good teachers.

Writing recently in Neurology, scientists say only two out of thirty U-S and foreign movies with characters in prolonged comas accurately depicted the condition.

Researchers reviewed comedies, dramas and thrillers made from 1970 to 2004 and found examples of people who had been in comas for years suddenly waking up with no physical or mental problems.

Well-groomed, physically fit “sleeping beauties,” completely unencumbered by messy feeding tubes or catheters, were common characters.

Only one movie showed a comatose person with open eyes, even though people in prolonged comas often do have their eyes open.

When researchers showed clips to seventy-two people with no medical training, they found viewers weren’t able to identify important inaccuracies more than a third of the time.

In one scene, a comatose person tapped out a message in Morse code with his finger. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed believe such behavior is possible.

Researchers were alarmed when thirty-nine percent of the film-clip viewers said the scenes would influence their decisions if they had a family member in a coma.

Like movies about flying superheroes or impossible missions, a film about someone facing a brave new world after coma can be entertaining.

But when it comes to real-life decisions, researchers say doctors should have higher billing than scriptwriters.