Doctors may feel foolish talking to patients who are comatose, but their words could benefit the patients and the physicians as well, a medical consultant said last week.

"We should talk to comatose patients because they may hear, because some comatose patients may get better and because we are caring professionals," Dr. John La Puma and his colleagues wrote in an article in January's Archives of Neurology, a publication of the American Medical Association.

"We're not advising doctors to do absurd things like talk to them about the {Chicago} Cubs or the Bears," La Puma said in a telephone interview. "We're talking about relating to patients, about being courteous."

La Puma conducted the study with David Schiedermayer, Ann Gulyas and Mark Siegler, all of the University of Chicago's Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

They informally sampled the views of staff doctors at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics in 1986 on the idea of talking to comatose patients.

The first response they got was laughter, La Puma said.

"But once we got past that, we got into deeper feelings," he said.

"Physicians are, by nature, people who want to help others. They feel very frustrated when they can't do that."

La Puma said he had no direct contact with any patient who had recovered from a coma as a result of a doctor's words. But he said research has shown the issue is worth more study.

Auditory stimulation such as a loud click has led to changes in patients' heart and respiratory rates even though it has failed to arouse them, he said.

The article cites an account of a comatose patient who recovered and remembered things that were said during her coma. She also remembered thinking, "We know each other, doctor, but you never say hello to me. Why do you act as if I'm not here?"