Prayer's effect on health called nil by Duke study


July 15, 2005|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

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 conducted to date. Scientists said the study, published today in The Lancet, will undoubtedly renew debates over whether prayer has a measurable effect on illness and even whether it's a suitable subject of scientific inquiry.

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

Researchers found that the prayers, offered by representatives of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faiths, had no effect on whether patients experienced post-procedure complications such as heart attack, death or readmission to the hospital.

Duke researchers did find that another nontraditional intervention known as "MIT therapy," which involves playing music and administering therapeutic touch at the bedside, did have a slight beneficial health effect.

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

Mitchell Krucoff, the Duke University cardiologist who led the study, says the research - sponsored by several medical centers and foundations - was not intended to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether prayer works. The study, he says, was mostly intended to determine the best way to evaluate the influence of prayer.

"This is still very fertile ground," he says.

But not all scientists agree. 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.

Some prayer studies are difficult to interpret. For example, when researchers at the University of New Mexico looked at the effect of prayer on recovering alcoholics, they found that patients who knew they were being prayed for actually wound up drinking significantly more at the end of the six-month study.

"Nobody disputes that religious practices bring comfort to people in times of illness," says Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University in New York and 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, researchers carefully monitor how much medicine a volunteer receives.

"But how do you define a `dose' of prayer?" Sloan asks.

Other thorny questions arise. Does individual prayer confer different benefits from group prayer? Are the prayers of one religion more potent than another? The answers to all these issues remain unresolved, the Duke team notes in its paper.

It's also unclear what effect, if any, the outcome of prayer research would have. A large 2004 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found that 41 percent of Americans already prayed for their own health while 24 percent asked others to pray for them.

Critics argue that people will probably continue their spiritual habits no matter what scientists find.

Still, in an accompanying Lancet editorial, the influential British medical journal defended its publication of the study, which it described as "unusual and important."

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

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