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On-Screen Portrayal of Coma Patients Misleads the Public

Misperceptions may also have an impact on real-life decisions

MONDAY, May 8 (HealthDay News) -- The on-screen portrayal of coma patients is inaccurate and misleading, and could influence real-life decision-making, according to a study published in the May 9 issue of Neurology.

Eelco F.M. Wijdicks, M.D., and Coen A. Wijdicks, B.S., of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., reviewed 30 movies from 1970 to 2004 in which a patient in a prolonged coma was portrayed. A panel of neurointensivists and neuroscience nurses as well as 72 nonmedical viewers rated the accuracy of 22 key scenes from 17 movies.

In the movies, motor vehicle accidents or violence caused 63 percent of comas, which lasted from a few days to a decade. While in a coma, the characters were beautifully groomed with their eyes closed, an appearance the authors likened to Sleeping Beauty. Scenes of awakening from a coma were portrayed as sudden events with cognition intact and occurred in 18 out of 30 movies. Physicians were portrayed in caricature.

Although the majority of viewers correctly identified inaccurate portrayals in all but eight of the 22 scenes (36 percent), 28 of the 72 nonmedical viewers (39 percent) responded that the portrayal of coma in movies could influence real-life decisions.

"The public has become more sophisticated in its medical knowledge, and we presume moviegoers would appreciate a more accurate display of devastating neurologic injury and a less stereotyped depiction of physicians," the authors conclude.

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