God on their side

The New Scientist
November 13, 1999

Heart patients fared better when strangers prayednewsstory13
PRAYERS CAN HELP patients recover even when they don’t know that people are praying for them, says a provocative new study. Sceptics are far from convinced, however. They say that while this attempt to probe the healing powers of prayer was better designed than previous studies, it was still flawed.

Although most research into prayer has found no effect, one study of four hundred heart patients in 1988 did suggest a positive outcome. But William Harris of Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, felt that this study was potentially flawed, since both doctors and their patients knew a study was in progress–although no one knew which patients received prayer. So Harris designed a similar study, in which both doctors and patients were kept in the dark.

Harris and his colleagues secretly enrolled patients who came to the hospital’s coronary care unit over 12 months. They left out patients having heart transplants, as well as people who stayed less than 24 hours, since it took a day to arrange for the prayers. All new patients routinely get a medical record number in sequential order, and the hospital chaplain’s secretary would call a volunteer Christian prayer group and give them the first name of any patient with an even number. The volunteers then prayed for the person daily for four weeks. Odd-numbered patients served as controls.

To assess patients’ overall recovery, the researchers devised a scoring system on the basis of variables like fever and whether they were being treated with antibiotics. They say the scoring system is consistent enough for ten doctors who scored eleven patients to reach 96 per cent agreement. Based on this system, the 466 patients in the group who were prayed for had a significantly better outcome than the 524 patients who received no prayer.

Harris believes his study is as rigorous as most drugs trials. And it has gained a stamp of approval by appearing in a journal published by the American Medical Association. “How open or closed your mind is doesn’t make much difference if you design it right,” says Harris. “If people are willing to accept the outcome of a drug study like this, they have to accept this one too.”

“It’s better than the previous studies, but there are still some issues,” says Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But he notes that no other researchers have validated the scoring system, and questions the way patients were divided into the two groups. Any ordered system, such as Harris’s odd and even medical record numbers, raises the possibility of bias should the secrecy surrounding the trial break down.

Paul Kurz, who chairs the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, New York, believes the next step should be to conduct a similar study in collaboration with members of a sceptical organisation such as his own. “We would be pleased to provide research work,” he says. “It has to be a very, very tight protocol.

(Source: Archives of Internal Medicine (vol 159, p 2273)

Nell Boyce, Washington DC

From New Scientist, 13 November 1999


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