Heart surgery patients didn’t benefit
After large study, power of prayer still up in the air
By MALCOLM RITTER
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Does praying for a sick person’s recovery do any good?
In the largest scientific test of its kind, heart surgery patients showed no benefit when strangers prayed for their recovery.
And, surprisingly, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications. The researchers could only guess why.
Several scientists questioned the concept of the study.
Science “is not designed to study the supernatural,” said Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center.
The researchers who tested the power of prayer emphasized that their $2.4 million study could not address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another’s behalf. The study could look only for effects from the specific prayers offered as part of the research, they said.
The highly anticipated study “did not move us forward or backward” in understanding the effects of prayer, said Charles Bethea, a co-author and cardiologist at the Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. “Intercessory prayer under our restricted format had a neutral effect.”
Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, co-principal investigator of the study, agreed. “We cannot come to a conclusion, except to say that by this study design, with its limitations, this is what we found.”
The researchers had expected that knowing someone was praying for the patients might help those patients relax and bring about a state of well-being, which can reduce strain on the heart.
The researchers said they didn’t know why patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of complications than patients who only knew that such prayers were a possibility. They stressed that family and friends shouldn’t be discouraged from telling a patient about their plans to pray for a good recovery.
Experts called it the largest and best-designed study ever to test the medical effects of intercessory prayers — praying on behalf of someone else. That is different from studying the effect of a person’s prayers and spiritual practices on his or her own health; many studies of that have shown a positive effect.
William Harris, lead researcher on a prayer study done at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City in the late 1990s, said that he found several troubling things about this new study.
Telling some people they were going to be prayed for was unusual and disconcerting, he said, and may have affected the way patients responded because they may have been more worried about their conditions, knowing they were prayer subjects.
He also said it was significant that different religious groups — two Catholic and one with Lee’s Summit-based Unity — did the praying. They have quite different theologies, and it is not clear what effect that might have had, he said.
Harris, a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, reviewed the new study several years ago when it was being considered for publication in The J ournal of the American Medical Association. He was surprised to learn then that “45 percent of the people refused to be in the study. Something is really funky about that.”
The AMA journal decided not to publish the study. Instead, it is appearing in the American Heart Journal.
“What that says to me,” said Harris, “is they had to dig pretty deep to get to a journal that would take it. The American Heart Journal is not an upper-tier journal.”
The new study followed about 1,800 patients at six medical centers. It was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion, and one of the participating hospitals.
The research team tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications” for specific patients — their identities known only by first name and first initial of the last name.
The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 each: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren’t prayed for but were told it was a possibility.
The researchers didn’t ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying that such a step would have been unethical and impractical.
The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But among patients who did receive prayers, 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, compared with 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.
Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, had a blunt response when asked why he thought the study found no effect of prayer.
“Because there is none,” he said. “That would be one answer.”
He added that although he tries to keep an open mind, he has seen no good evidence for such an effect in past studies.
Koenig, who didn’t take part in the study, said the results didn’t surprise him.
“There are no scientific grounds to expect a result, and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result, either,” he said. “There is no God in either the Christian, Jewish or Muslim Scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.”
Within the Christian tradition, God would be expected to be concerned with a person’s eternal salvation, he said, and “why would God change his plans for a particular person just because they’re in a research study?”
David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, said he thinks that intercessory prayer can influence medical outcomes, but that science is not equipped to explore it.
As for the new study, he said, “I don’t think ... it’s going to stop people praying for the sick.”