Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Friday, March 31, 2006

The power of prayer

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 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 Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center.
Honestly, my first reaction to this is what a waste of $2.4 million (and parenthetically, how expensive has biomedical research become? They randomized 1800 patients to be prayed for or not and it cost 2.4 million? I wonder how much they paid the prayers?). Abstract of original article is here(no free full text).

Hopefully, further research funding can concentrate on interventions likely to actually, you know, benefit patients. I don't mean to disparage prayer and religion (especially given that I attend church regularly), but I agree with this editorial that describes prayer as
widely practiced . . . with no plausible mechanism
at least biologically. I don't think you are going to learn much about divine intervention doing clinical research


At 9:36 AM, Blogger Flea said...

Good points, Andy,

I wonder about the premise of the study, mentioned in the background section of the abstract:

Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness...

Is that true?

Do believers believe that the object of intercessory prayer is less likely to recover in the absence of prayer?

I thought religious people (or some of them anyway) believe that God hears the prayers of the faithful, but does not necessarily respond with grace.

In any case, it's an unfortunate study that would have done no service to faith communities regardless of its outcome.



At 3:04 PM, Blogger ollie said...

actually, since you are an ultrarunner, you might read David Horton's account of his setting the App. Trail speed record (56 days).

I think that "prayer" might well affect the person doing the praying (I know, this is NOT the issue being studied).

Example: when I had my second knee operation, my pain medication wore off and I got a horrible cramp in the area behind my knee.

The doctor talked me through some meditation stuff (secular) and the pain eased up considerably; enough for e to be able to hold off until the next dose of morphine took effect.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Serani said...

As a clinical psychologist, I have seen the recovery of those with significant depressions recover more swiftly when there is faith-based prayer. The psychological field is rich in research regarding touting its benefits.

At 1:28 AM, Anonymous mchebert said...

I blogged about this on my website. I ask the question: what if the study showed prayer helped? If that were true, it would turn all science as we know it on its head.

Put in another context, suppose we got paid $5 every time we prayed for money. Would we have jobs? Would we do anything but pray all the time?

If prayers cured disease there would be no need for medicine at all. I can't speak for God, but I think He wants us to practice medicine. He wants us to do things for ourselves. Faith is not a frequent flyer gift program, in which those who believe are favored over those who do not.

The problem with faith is that if there were a visible advantage to believing (i.e., if all Christians were millionares) faith would not be an act of will. It would be an act of greed.

Although an athiest would find this a funny statement, I think there cannot be a physical advantage to praying, or there would be no free will involved. Perhaps God thinks free will is more vital than surgery survival rates.

At 4:49 AM, Anonymous Barely, MD said...

Wow, my sentiments exactly. Though researchers have wasted far more on much less...

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous the blog that ate manhattan said...

I don't pray, but for those who do, I believe they themselves benefit from their own prayers. I think of praying as akin to meditation, which as we know can have health benefits. As for praying for others, what a waste of millions. Like asking someone to meditate for you.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger pb said...

Heh. Just to put everyone on notice: I've been messing with the results of such research by praying for all those with medical conditions. Furthermore, my church has also skewed the results every Sunday. Indiscriminately.

Just so you know...

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At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Alice said...

The study Dr. Andy referred to is riddled with methodological errors. The whole idea of using scientific methods to measure supernatural phenomena is self-contradictory, anyhow. I wrote a critique of the study on my blog, here, as well as a critique of a recent editorial on prayer in the Science and Technology News.

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