The results of a long-awaited scientific study aimed at measuring
the effect of third-party prayer for hospitalized patients not only
did not match the expectations of those conducting the study, but
also may have raised more questions for researchers than it
answered. Among them: Can even the most carefully designed trial
measure prayer's effects?
The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer
(STEP), published online March 30 by the American Heart Journal,
showed no positive effect from the use of third-party intercessory
prayer on behalf of patients undergoing a specific type of heart
surgery at six medical centers around the United States when
compared with a control group who were not prayed for as part of the
Another unexpected result: Patients who knew they were being
prayed for had somewhat more medical complications than another
group who also had received prayer but were uncertain as to whether
they had or not. Researchers had expected the reverse outcome.
STEP aimed to provide more accurate results than four previous
trials that involved cardiac patients, the authors said. The results
of those trials were mixed: Two found a beneficial effect of prayer;
two found no benefit. The earlier studies were also criticized for
having design flaws, the authors said.
But the study itself is unlikely to satisfy those who question
whether the effects of prayer can be measured using conventional
scientific testing. They ask: How do you define what constitutes a
prayer? Are all forms of prayer equally effective? How do you design
a "dose" of prayer that is the same for each patient? And how do you
rule out the effects of the patients' own prayers or prayers from
others not involved in the study on behalf of the patient?
About 95 percent of all the STEP participants - including a
control group that was not prayed for as part of the study - said
that they expected friends, relatives, or members of their religious
institutions to be praying for them. About two-thirds strongly
agreed with the statement, "I believe in spiritual healing."
The authors were careful to point out the limited conclusions
that could be drawn from their study. "Private or family prayer is
widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results
of this study do not challenge this belief," the authors wrote. "Our
study focused only on intercessory prayer as provided in this trial
and was never intended to and cannot address a large number of
religious questions, such as whether God exists, whether God answers
intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group
work in the same way as prayers from other groups."
For some involved in exploring the issues of spirituality and
health, the new study only confirms their reservations. "Scientific
studies are just not capable of showing that prayer works," says Dr.
Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine and co-director of
the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke
University's Medical Center.
"I think that prayer absolutely does work and that God answers
prayer and that we can continue to pray for our loved ones," Dr.
Koenig says. "We should not think that science can answer every
question there is."
How the study was designed
The authors of STEP wanted to study the effect of intercessory
prayer and whether knowledge that the patient was receiving prayer
made a difference. In the study, 1,802 cardiac patients awaiting
surgery at six medical centers were divided evenly and randomly into
three groups. All the patients were told that they were involved in
a clinical trial and gave their permission. Those in Group 1
received intercessory prayer after being told that they may or may
not receive prayer. Those in Group 2 did not receive prayer after
being told that they may or may not receive prayer (the placebo, or
control, group). …