Changing perceptions of death and care for the sick: Contextualising hypotheses and longitudinal comparisons

Abandoned tunnel

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This review is based solely on a news report of a research study by the Singapore Management University. I was not able to locate the original publication. Let me know if you have access to a link or a copy, and a more thorough review will follow!

A study by the Singapore Management University (SMU) has found that more Singaporeans – including younger Singaporeans between 21 and 50 years old – are more comfortable with discussing death and are now “more aware and better informed of the purpose of palliative care in ‘relieving symptoms and improving the quality of life’ of older patients”. It was led by SMU’s Dr. Yeo Su Lin, who also argued that digital media and online interactions are likely explanations (or hypotheses) for younger Singaporeans to engage in conversations focused on the end-of-life or on death.

The article itself is filled with anecdotes from funeral directors and caregivers, but the anecdotes problematically reinforce the top-level findings of the survey without interrogation of the research methods. They read like instances of confirmation bias and added little value to the reader’s understanding of the issue. In particular: First, how does the present study compare with the one from five years ago; and second, where is the evidence in the actual study which points to digital media and online interactions as factors accounting for Singaporeans being more open to talking about death and care for the sick?

There is hence a broader point about media outlets and journalists holding researchers to account for their studies and findings, instead of taking their findings and interpretations for granted.

First, longitudinally, it is repeated that “more Singaporeans” are “more comfortable” and that that those who are younger are “now more aware and better informed”. Yet besides mentioning “a 17 percentage point increase from five years ago” in relation to discussing end-of-life matters, at no other point did the report offer additional details or contextualisation. At the very least, a report premised upon comparisons should offer the following information:

  • Was the same survey used in 2014? How many Singaporeans participated in that study? Did the same respondents complete both the 2014 and 2019 studies?
  • When it is said that 66 per cent of those between 41 and 50 years ago are better informed about end-of-life issues, was it a dichotomous yes-or-no question? Or was it a Likert scale? If so, what were the range of options?
  • Likewise, when it is noted that the proportion of Singaporeans comfortable discussing end-of-life matters has increased from 36 to 53 percentage points (2014 to 2019), was the same scale or question used in both years?

Second, and more problematically, the article provides no empirical evidence to show that media and online interactions was related to the changing perceptions of death. What was the evidence for this assertion: Correlations with Internet or social media usage in general? Or questions in the survey which asked respondents to indicate (and if so, what were the survey questions and their options)? The report, it would appear, was too keen to rely on Dr. Yeo’s substantive explanations, without asking for critical details published directly from the survey.

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