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Scientists Attempt to Measure the Healing Power of Prayer

By Alice Dembner,
Boston Globe

In nearly every faith, for thousands of years, congregations have regularly gathered to pray for the sick. In the United States, prayer is the most frequently used form of alternative medicine.

While many believers accept on faith that such prayers help patients get better, scientists are increasingly attempting to measure the effect of prayer on patients' health. Several major studies of prayer are underway or recently completed, including some funded by the federal government. One of the most scientifically rigorous studies yet, published earlier this month, found that the prayers of a distant congregation did not reduce the major complications or death rate in patients hospitalized for heart treatments. (Read it here.)

But some scientists and members of the clergy find this growing area of research ludicrous. Many of the studies attempt to separate the effect of prayer from a placebo effect by not telling patients whether they are being prayed for. The scientists who criticize this approach say it is irrational to think that a stranger's prayers could have any effect if the patient is unaware of the prayers. Meanwhile, some clergy say science doesn't have the tools to measure the effects of prayer.

''You can't study something like faith or God that by definition is inconsistent with the way science works," said John Chibnall, a psychologist at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, who has written on faith in medicine.

But scientists who research prayer maintain that, while difficult, the studies are important.

''This is the most ancient, widely practiced therapy on the face of the earth," said Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a professor of medicine and cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, who led the recent study on prayer for cardiac care. ''We need to know if we can offer better health care if we pay attention to it and understand it better."

In the Catholic Church, for example, prayers for intercession are part of every Mass and those attending often ask the congregation to pray for the health of someone who is sick or hospitalized. For Judaism, a prayer for the sick is a regular part of services, and members of the synagogue may either call out the names of individuals who are ill or ask the rabbi to announce them. In the Muslim faith, members of the congregation may ask the imam to say a special prayer at the end of daily services for a person who is sick, with the congregation affirming the prayer by saying Ameen.

A national survey conducted by the federal government and published last year, found that 43 percent of Americans prayed for their own health and 24 percent reported that others were praying for their health. Prayer for health dwarfed all other practices the survey researchers considered ''alternative or complementary medicine." Nineteen percent of people said they used natural products, for example. The survey did not ask whether people prayed for others' health.

Because of those numbers, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, is funding several studies on prayer, and spent $878,530 on five studies of prayer or spirituality in healing in 2004, according to spokeswoman Shea Buckman. The center is particularly interested in trying to determine the mechanisms by which prayer might affect health, according to Catherine Stoney, a program officer there. Some suggest that prayer may lessen stress or strengthen patients' immune systems.
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In the Duke University study, the researchers studied 748 patients who were undergoing heart procedures such as angioplasty or cardiac catheterization. Congregations of various religions at locations outside the hospital were randomly assigned to pray for half of the patients, without the patients or their doctors knowing which group they fell into.

The patients weren't told because the researchers wanted to separate any impact of prayer from any placebo effect. The prayers followed the traditions of the congregation involved, and continued for five to 30 days. The congregations were told the name, age, and illness of the patient.

Over a six-month period, the study found no difference in serious side effects, death rate, or readmissions between the patients who had received prayers and those who did not.

Krucoff cautioned against concluding that prayer doesn't work based on his study. Nearly 90 percent of all the patients participating said someone was praying for them separate from the prayers commissioned by the researchers. So the study, in effect, measured whether distant prayer provided an added benefit to personal, local prayer, he said.

The study offers no evidence about bedside prayer by patients themselves or their loved ones. Krucoff said he did not attempt to look at that question because of ethical and logistical problems.

''Nobody has built a prayer-proof room and we would think it unethical to tell patients or relatives not to pray," he said. ''So, you cannot have a zero prayer control group."

Krucoff and his colleagues say there are other difficulties in conducting these studies. Nobody knows, for example, whether the number of people praying, the timing, or the duration of prayers might matter.

Chibnall argued that the design of the study was flawed because prayer only works if people know they are being prayed for, but Krucoff noted that many congregations of different faiths pray for patients even when they are unconscious.

But critics question whether scientific studies of prayer can really say anything at all.

''Prayer is definitely working," said the Rev. Linda J. Knight, a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. ''They're trying to put the scientific blessing on it. But the measurable outcomes are not ones that might show up on a blood pressure screen or a scan. They simply didn't have the right measurements."

Knight, who often prays with patients said, ''I have heard patients say after prayer that they feel so much better . . . Or their face lights up. Or they breathe easier. It does help the healing process by restoring hope."

There are also questions, raised by the editors of the journal Lancet in an editorial, about whether prayer needs scientific justification. And although Krucoff's study was funded by private foundations and nonprofit medical centers, some, such as Chibnall, question whether the government should be funding other studies of prayer.

One ongoing study funded by NIH is looking at whether ''distant healing," including prayer, helps healing in women who had breast reconstruction surgery. The study is being conducted at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

A review of 17 past studies of ''distant healing," published in 2003 by a British researcher, found no significant effect for prayer or other healing methods.

The largest studies have focused on cardiac care. In one study of 990 cardiac patients conducted at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and published in 1999, researchers found prayer did not affect hospital length of stay, but did improve health based on a composite score of measures that the researchers created for the study. A study of 799 patients at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., published in 2001, found prayer made no difference in the outcomes of patients after discharge from the cardiac care unit. The study looked at the number of deaths, cardiac arrests, and repeat hospitalizations, among other outcomes.

But Susan Misselbeck is sure that prayer helped her daughter Courtney Ridd, when she underwent a liver transplant 10 years ago after battling a rare liver disease. Misselbeck, who is now assistant to the executive director at Temple Israel, said her Jewish friends said prayers in their synagogues. People of different faiths across the country -- many of whom Misselbeck did not know -- heard about Courtney's illness and took up her cause in their prayer groups. Courtney, now 28, is doing fine.

''Did it help her to get better? Absolutely," said Misselbeck. ''Would she have died? How are you going to test something like that?

''All that powerful energy gave us a sense of peace. It felt like a nice warm blanket, wrapping us in it, saying it's going to be OK."

SOURCE: Boston Globe

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