The Healing Power of Prayer

If you’ve ever prayed for someone who’s perilously ill, in some corner of your mind you may have doubted the efficacy of your efforts, wondering if prayer soothed only the supplicant. But in October, the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine published evidence that prayer may actually benefit the sick, even if they are totally unaware of appeals on their behalf.

This finding emerged from the laboratory of an unlikely pioneer of metaphysical research, 50-year-old physiologist William Harris, who had been in the midst of discerning the secrets of fish oil’s effect on blood lipids. One day he was lunching and strumming guitar with some colleagues in his windowless office at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City when discussion turned to cardiologist Randolph Byrd’s study of prayer’s effects on cardiac patients. Byrd ostensibly found that those who were prayed for did better than those who weren’t. But his study, published in the regional Southern Medical Journal (July 1988), had loopholes that undermined its credibility.

Harris and his strumming pals, a psychology graduate student and a cardiologist, decided to replicate Byrd’s study without the loopholes. They recruited a hospital chaplain and 15 five-member prayer groups, obtained a $5,000 private grant, and secured the hospital administration’s permission.

When people were admitted to the coronary care unit at the Mid-America Heart Institute, their names and patient numbers appeared in the chaplain’s computer. The chaplain’s secretary–who never saw the patients–called in the first names of even-numbered patients to prayer group leaders. Leaders then assigned a team member to pray every day for the patient’s speedy recovery without complications. Odd-numbered patients became the control group. In all, 466 patients received prayers while 524 didn’t. Volunteer supplicants–mostly women–were of various Christian denominations. Neither patients nor doctors knew of the yearlong study.

Probably others were praying for some of the patients too, says Harris, since more than half indicated a religious preference when they were admitted. Nevertheless, when he measured number and severity of adverse events befalling trial subjects, those prayed for by the prayer groups did 11 percent better.

As for the source of this beneficence, Harris writes in Archives, “It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God, that was tested here.” He doesn’t attempt to explain the mechanism, but does remind readers that in 1753, when James Lind discovered that lemons and limes cured scurvy, the notion of a nutrient was still 200 years in the future. “I’m not interested in mechanism,” says Harris. “I want to know how this can be maximized for healing. What kind of prayer works? With how many praying? One? Ten?”

The idea that prayer can have measurable medical effects has gained increasing, if grudging, admittance by the sentinels of academe. Recently, the Western Journal of Medicine (Dec. 1998) published another carefully controlled study of the effects of distant healing, this one conducted on 40 AIDS patients by retired businessman Fred Sicher and Elisabeth Targ, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Sicher and Targ used supplicants from eight faiths ranging from Catholic to Hindu. The prayed-for patients tended to stabilize, while the controls declined, as measured by new opportunistic infections, number and length of hospital stays, and mood. Subjects were aware of the study but didn’t know who was being prayed for. Still, a patient’s believing that he or she was being prayed for did not affect overall outcome.

Duke University cardiologist Martin Sullivan deemed their study ‘airtight,’ and Duke now has in progress a large distant-healing study involving several hospitals. But these are only the most visible research efforts. In December 1997 Harvard hosted what Targ described as a ‘confidential’ conference for about 100 distant-healing researchers–among whom were a number of prominent scientists. Yet Harvard researchers refrained from presenting information about their own study of 1,800 patients admitted for heart surgery.

“There’s a fear of talking about these things–you’re considered unstable,” Targ says wryly.

The data in this arena, though, have become more leakproof in the past 10 years, as method and technology have become more sophisticated. And as physician Larry Dossey notes, we may be approaching a time when prayer and healing move from the realm of the curious to that of the mundane: “At what point does it become ethically irresponsible to deny patients prayer?” asks the best-selling author of Be Careful What You Pray For (HarperSan Francisco, 1997). “I think we’re edging toward the day when prayer will be standard practice, not just last resort.”

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