Apr. 3, 2006 Many -- if not most people -- believe that prayer will help you through a medical crisis such as heart bypass surgery. If a large group of people outside yourself, your family, and your friends joined in intercessory prayer, that should be even more helpful, so such reasoning goes.
Researchers have been trying to prove this and even to measure the effect. So far, two studies found that third-party prayers bestow benefits, but two others concluded that there are no benefits. Now, the largest study to date, covering 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals, supported the latter research.
Not only that, but patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of it.
Those who conducted the study are quick to say that its results do not challenge the existence of God. Also, it did not try to address such religious questions as the efficacy of one form of prayer over others, whether God answers intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another, according to the Rev. Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Other researchers in the study, who include investigators from Harvard Medical School, Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Mind/Body Medical Institute, agree. Also involved were teams from medical institutions in Oklahoma City, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and Rochester, Minn.
"The primary goal of the study was limited to evaluating whether intercessory prayer or the knowledge of receiving it would influence recovery after bypass surgery," notes Jeffery Dusek, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. The evaluation found that third-party prayer has no effect at all on recovery from surgery without complications, and that patients who knew they were receiving prayer fared worse that those who were not prayed for.
STEP up to pray
Known as STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), it investigated patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, who include 350,000 people in the United States and 800,000 people worldwide each year. Patients of any or no religious faith were eligible to participate. Among those chosen were Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and people of no faith.
The 1,802 participants were divided into three groups of about 600 each, with a mean age of about 64 years. One group received no prayers. A second group received prayers after being told that they may or may not be prayed for. The third group was informed that others would pray for them for 14 days starting on the night before their surgery.
The prayers came from three Christian groups, two Catholic, and one Protestant. The investigators report that, "We were unable to locate other Christian, Jewish, or non-Christian [groups] that could receive the daily prayer list required for the study." Such lists provided the first name and last initial of the patients.
The intercessors said a standard prayer "for successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." This system provides a practical way to conduct the experiment, but limits the results to one type of prayer.
There were all kinds of complications from the surgeries, including 197 cardiac complications for the group who knew they were receiving prayers versus 187 and 158 in the other two groups. These and other complications occurred in 59 percent of those who were prayed for, compared to 51 percent of those who received no prayers, and 52 percent in the group who received prayers but didn't know it.
Deaths during the 30 days after surgery were similar across groups, 13 and 16 in the prayed-for, 14 in the no-pray group.
The big unanswered question is why there was an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. The researchers admit they have "no clear explanation." To find out, they say, "will require additional study."
The STEP study was paid for by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that supports research on the boundary between science and religion. Medical centers that participated, in addition to Harvard Medical School and its two affiliates, were Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, which supported the research done at its site, Intergris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, the Mayo Clinic, and the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. A detailed report appears in the April 4 issue of the American Heart Journal. The lead author is Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
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