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Effectiveness of "distant healing" prayer:

Mayo clinic 1999. Two studies '89 & 99.
Columbia University 2001. Duke University 2003

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Mayo Clinic: Large coronary patient study in 1999:

A randomized controlled trial was conducted between 1997 and 1999. It involved 799 coronary care unit patients. When they were discharged from the hospital, half of them were assigned to an intercessory prayer group. Five persons prayed at least once a week for 26 weeks on behalf of their assigned patient. Records were kept of the occurrence of a "primary end point" which included death, cardiac arrest, or coronary revascularization, emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease, or rehospitalization for cardiovascular disease.

They found:

Group
End point reached,
intercessory prayer group
End point reached,
control group
All patients
25.6%
29.3%
High risk patients
31.0%
33.3%
Low risk patients
17.0%
24.1%

They concluded that intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit. 1

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Two additional small studies in 1998 & 1999:

Victor Stenger refers to two:

"intercessory prayer studies that have been published in medical journals, accompanied by great media hype. For example, cardiologist Randolph Byrd has claimed evidence that coronary patients benefited from blind, distant intercessory prayer. But his p-value is only five percent. 2 Such results would be expected from statistical fluctuations alone every twenty experiments, on average. Another study along the same line as Byrd's has been published in a major medical journal... 3 There, positive results are reported at a p-value is four percent, but for different criteria than Byrd's. In fact, they fail to confirm Byrd's specific results." 4

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Columbia University "study" of 2001:

This study involving three researchers at prestigious Columbia University in New York, and a very highly respected peer reviewed journal, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM). In theory, this research paper appeared both conclusive and remarkable. It examined the pregnancy rate of 199 women in Seoul, South Korea who were undergoing in-vitro fertilization. They were randomly selected to form a test group of 100 and a control group of 99. An extremely complex prayer protocol was used. Christians in the U.S., Australia, and Canada prayed over faxed photographs of the Korean women in the test group, praying for conception success. Other prayers prayed that the first set of prayers would be successful. A third tier of prayers prayed that the second set would be successful. Allegedly, none of the women were informed of the study.

The paper reported that 50% of those women who received prayer conceived. Only 26% of those who were not prayed for became pregnant. Unlike many other studies before and since, these result were statistically significant (p = 0.0013). The data were overwhelming. Here at last was a solid proof that anonymous, remote intercessory prayer (IP) actually worked! The press, TV and other media publicized the results widely.

Dr. Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of California was puzzled about what he felt were irregularities in the study. Eventually many strange events are reported as having surfaced:

bullet The report stated that all three researchers started out with the assumption that IP was ineffective. However, one of the three, Daniel Wirth, had published many research articles in the past claiming supernatural healing. Also, Wirth had a law degree and a masters degree in parapsychology! He was not a medical doctor.

bullet The Journal of Reproductive Medicine allegedly stonewalled requests for the names of the peer reviewers.

bullet A second researcher, Dr. Kwang Cha, had left Columbia and would not respond to questions about the study.

bullet The third cited author is Dr. Rogerio Lobo, He was chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia. Columbia now claims that he only provided "editorial review and assistance" with publication of the study.

bullet Columbia University originally issued a press release, claiming that the study had several safeguards in place to eliminate bias. They have subsequently removed it from their web site.

bullet After the article was published. Wirth and another individual were indicted on various felony charges including 13 counts of mail fraud and 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money.

bullet The Journal of Reproductive Medicine removed the article from their web site. 5

bullet The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) started an investigation to determine if there was a lack of informed consent by the subjects of this study.>5

bullet Although the Columbia University news release listed Dr. Lobo as lead author, they later admitted to the DHHS that Dr. Lobo first learned of the study from Dr. Cha six to twelve months after the study was completed.

Flamm authored an article in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine for 2004-SEP. 7 He wrote two articles in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine in 2002 and 2004. 6.7

A Google search using a search string: Wirth, Columbia, prayer revealed about 1,360 hits of which many are skeptical reports of the study. Others accept the study at face value and cite it as proof that IP works.

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Duke University studies - MANTRA study of 2003:

This experiment, Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic TRAinings, was been billed as "the worlds largest study into the effects of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery..." It was led by a cardiologist, Dr. Mitch Krucoff, and involved 750 angioplasty patients in nine hospitals who were randomly divided into two groups of 375. Both groups were given normal medical treatment. One of the groups was prayed for by 12 groups who followed various religions: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. They were alerted by E-mail as soon as possible after the patient was enrolled in the trial. This was a double blind study; none of the hospital staff, or the patients, or the patients' relatives were aware of which 375 patients were receiving prayer. The patients were studied for six months to see how they progressed. The data showed no difference in outcome between the two groups. Prayer neither helped nor hindered their recovery. 9,10

Reactions:

bullet The Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, rejected any study that "puts God to the test." He said: "Prayer is not a penny in the slot machine. You can't just put in a coin and get out a chocolate bar. This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not." He said that the Bible said "very clearly" that you must not test God. 9

bullet BBC News suggested that:

"Other experts are highly critical of the concept that the benefits of prayer might be "dose-dependent" - that is, that the benefits might increase as the number of people praying went up.

"This is particularly important, as Duke University is at the center of the US 'Bible belt' - and many of the trial participants, regardless of whether they were randomized to receive prayer during the trial, would be getting it from relatives and friends - and of course themselves.
10

That is, their own prayer plus the efforts of friends and family may produce a type of prayer saturation, so that prayer by strangers at a distance might not have any additional effect.

bullet Dr Richard Sloan, from the New York Presbyterian Hospital, described the concept of a prayer "dose" as "absurd". He said: "It requires us to abandon our understanding of the physical universe." 10

bullet Other possible criticisms are:

bullet The 12 prayer groups were located at some considerable distance from the patients. Prayer might be more effective if it is local.

bullet The 12 prayer groups were composed of strangers to the patients. Prayer might be more effective if it is done by family or loved ones of the patients -- people who know the patients and are concerned about their recovery. A posting on the Good Fig web site suggested that: "God doesn't want our vain repetitions; He wants sincere, heartfelt prayer. Some group of people that has never even met the patient in person and doesn't really know the person can't do that." 11

bullet Those Christians who view Satan as a living entity might suggest that Satan would have wanted to prevent the study from showing a positive result. After all, if a scientific study proved that prayer was effective, then more people might be led to believe in God. Satan might have personally intervened by impeding the recovery of some patients in the prayed-over group in order to cancel out the positive effects of prayer on that group.

bullet Some conservative Christians believe that non-Christian religions, like Buddhism and Islam are actually forms of Satanism; their followers worship Satan or his demons. Thus, they might conclude that any positive effect of the Christian prayer groups would be counteracted by negative influences from the non-Christian prayer groups. The overall end result might be to see no observable results.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J.M. Aviles, et al. "Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial." Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2001;76:1192-1198. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
  2. Randolph C. Byrd, "Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population," Southern Medical Journal 81, no. 7 (1988). Pages 826 to 829.
  3. W.S. Harris, M. Gowda, J.W. Kolb, C.P. Strychacz, J.L. Vacek, P.G. Jones, A. Forker, J.H. O'Keefe, and B.D. McCallister, "A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit," Archives of Internal Medicine 159 (1999). Pages 2273 to 2278.
  4. Victor Stenger, "Reality check: The science of prayer," Skeptical Briefs newsletter, 2001-DEC, at: http://www.csicop.org/
  5. Leon Jaroff, "Questioning Healing Prayer. A reevaluation of a study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two prestigious institutions," Time magazine, 2004-JUL-01, at: http://www.time.com/
  6. B.L. Flamm, "Faith healing by prayer: Review of Cha, KY, Wirth, DP, Lobo, RA. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?" Sci Review Alt Med 2002; 6(1):47-50.
  7.    B.L. Flamm, "The Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud," Skeptical Inquirer, 2004-SEP.
  8. B.L. Flamm, "Faith healing confronts modern medicine," Sci Review Alt Med 2004; 8(1):9-14.
  9. "Power of prayer found wanting by scientists," Chicago Sun-Times, 2003-OCT-15, at: http://www.suntimes.com/
  10. " 'No health benefit' from prayer," BBC News, 2003-OCT-15, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  11. The "Good Fig: News for Christians" web site is at: http://www.goodfig.org/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-NOV-05
Author: B.A. Robinson
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