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Study highlights difficulty of isolating effect of prayer on patients

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The patients were prayed for by three Christian groups: two Roman Catholic (St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul, Minn., and the Community of Teresian Carmelites in Worcester, Mass.) and one Protestant (Silent Unity of Lee's Summit, Mo.). Attempts to involve non-Christian faith communities in the study proved unsuccessful, the authors said.

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The groups prayed from one to four times daily over a 14-day period beginning just before a patient's surgery. While individual prayers could differ, all participants were asked to specifically pray for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." Those praying never met the patients they were praying for and knew only their first names and the first initial of their last names.

Results were measured in terms of the number of medical complications encountered by each patient after surgery. Just over half of the patients in the study reported postsurgery complications. To the researchers' surprise, the highest percentage (59 percent) was recorded among those who were told they were being prayed for.

The researchers said they were unable to explain that outcome. "The role of awareness [of prayer] needs careful further study," said Dr. Charles Bethea, a cardiologist and one of the study's coauthors. The authors speculate that knowledge of being prayed for "might have introduced performance anxiety or made them feel doubtful about their outcome," Dr. Bethea says. "Did the patient think, 'Am I so sick that they had to call in the prayer team?' "

"This study might be opening doors to show the power of mind-body interventions both positively and negatively," added Dr. Herbert Benson, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-principal investigator for STEP.

Most studies conclude prayer helps

The Office of Prayer Research, sponsored by the Association of Unity Churches in Lee's Summit, Mo., has collected some 400 scientific studies on the subject of prayer and healing. About 75 percent show prayer having a positive impact on health, says Bob Barth, director of the office. "It's so easy to jump to conclusions that prayer doesn't work," he says.

But rather than placing too much emphasis on any one clinical trial, he says, STEP should open up "so many more areas where research should be done," such as a study comparing the effects of people using a standardized prayer vs. people using their own prayers.

Dr. Koenig, who was not involved in STEP, says he hopes this will mark the end of clinical trials that try to study intercessory prayer. "There are so many problems with the study - theological problems," he says. "I think God does heal people, I'm convinced of that, I know that from my own experience ... I pray for my patients every single day, and I see things happening, and I'm excited about that."

He would like to see other research into the ties between religion and health to continue, including "less sexy" questions such as, "Do patients who have a chaplain visit before surgery do better after surgery?" Or, "If a doctor takes a 'spiritual history' of patients along with their medical history and supports their religious beliefs, will it make a difference in medical outcomes?" Patients, Koenig says, have "tremendous spiritual needs that are not being met in the hospital."

According to a nationwide US government survey of complementary and alternative therapies released in 2004, 43 percent of American adults pray for their own health and 24 percent report having had others pray for their health.