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Prayer Appears to Have No Effect on Patients in Study

By Michael Stroh,
Baltimore Sun

Praying for someone who is ill and preparing to undergo a risky medical procedure appears to have no effect on the patient's future health.

That's the finding of one of the largest scientific investigations of the power of prayer, published today in the British medical journal the Lancet. Scientists said it undoubtedly will renew debates over whether prayer has a measurable effect on illness and even whether it's a suitable subject of scientific inquiry.

Researchers at Duke University recruited nearly 750 people undergoing heart-related procedures. Religious groups of different denominations were randomly assigned to pray for the health of half the volunteers; the other half received no organized prayers.

The prayers by representatives of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faiths had no effect on whether patients experienced postprocedure complications, such as heart attack, death or readmission to the hospital. But a nontraditional intervention known as "MIT therapy," which involves playing music and administering therapeutic touch at the bedside, had a slight beneficial health effect.

Volunteers who received MIT therapy, researchers found, had less emotional distress before their procedures and slightly lower mortality rates six months after admission.

Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, the Duke University cardiologist who led the study, said the research, sponsored by several medical centers and foundations, was not intended to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether prayer works.

It was mostly intended to determine the best way to evaluate the influence of prayer. "This is still very fertile ground," he said.

Research on prayer during the last decade has been highly controversial. Most studies have focused on so-called intercessory prayer -- petitions made directly on behalf of someone else -- as opposed to patients praying for their own health. While some studies have found measurable clinical effects, critics say they are often riddled with statistical flaws. The results of others have been too ambiguous to draw conclusions.

"Nobody disputes that religious practices bring comfort to people in times of illness," said Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University and a frequent critic of prayer research. "The question is, can medicine add anything to that? It trivializes the religious experience to think you can subject it to the measurement of science."

Even researchers who study prayer concede that the discipline is fraught with potential pitfalls. In a standard clinical trial of a new drug, for example, the dosage a volunteer receives is monitored. "But how do you define a 'dose' of prayer?" Sloan said.

A large 2004 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 41 percent of Americans prayed for their own health while 24 percent asked others to pray for them.

In an accompanying editorial, the Lancet said, "The contribution that hope and belief make to a personal understanding of illness cannot be dismissed so lightly. They are proper subjects for science, even while transcending its known bounds."

SOURCE: Baltimore Sun

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