Faith, Prayer, and Healing
In cultures all around the world, spirituality has historically played a large and very important role in healing. In today’s science-based, technological world, these practices now fall into the category of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). But how large a role does prayer still play in today’s world?
In May 2004, results of the largest (31,000 adults), most comprehensive survey to date on Americans' use of CAM was released. This survey found that when prayer was included in the definition, 62% of respondents said they had used CAM. This was compared to only 36% who admitted to using some form of CAM when prayer was not included in the definition of CAM. In addition, the survey found that:
- 45% had used prayer for health reasons
- 43% had prayed for their own health
- Almost 25% had had others pray for them
- Almost 10% had participated in a prayer group for their health
Does Prayer Work? The Evidence Pro and Con
In 1988, a study conducted in California on the effects of 'distant healing', or prayer, found that patients with advanced AIDS who received prayer survived in greater numbers, got sick less often, and recovered faster than those who did not receive prayer.
Another study, this one conducted at Duke University Medical Center, looked at the effects of prayer on patients undergoing cardiac procedures such as catheterization and angioplasty . This study found that patients receiving prayer had up to 100% fewer side-effects from these procedures than people not prayed for.
According to Catherine Stoney, PhD, a Program Officer in NCCAM's Division of Extramural Research and Training, preliminary evidence exists for a connection between prayer and related practices and health outcomes. She cautions, however, that this connection is by no means proven.
On the other side of the argument is Stephen Barrett, MD of Quackwatch.org, who takes a considerably more skeptical view of prayer and healing. His article “Some Thoughts About Faith Healing,” cites numerous studies which failed to prove the effects of intercessory prayer (where one person prays for another). In one such study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no significant effect of intercessory prayer on the medical outcomes of more than 750 patients who were followed for six months after discharge from the hospital coronary care unit.
Dr. Barrett also scrutinizes studies which report on the favorable effects of prayer but which he considers to be highly lacking in analytical integrity. For example, one San Francisco study compared 192 patients who were prayed for with 201 patients who were not. The results of the study found that the prayed-for group had fewer complications. But according to Dr. Barrett, the investigators’ tabulations were invalid because they scored interrelated complications separately and therefore gave them too much weight. The average length of hospital stay, which was not subject to this type of scoring prejudice, was identical for the treatment and control groups.
Addressing the Spiritual Concerns of Patients
In the end, what seems most important is a patient’s views about the effect of faith and prayer on their own healing process. A task force of physicians and end-of-life specialists suggested several guidelines for physicians who wish to respond to patients’ spiritual concerns:
- Respect the patient’s views and follow the patient’s lead.
- Make a connection by listening carefully and acknowledging the patient’s concerns, but avoid theological discussions or engaging in specific religious rituals.
- Maintain one's own integrity in relation to one's own religious beliefs and practices.
- Identify common goals for care and medical decisions.
- Mobilize other resources of support, such as referring the patient to a chaplain or encouraging contact with the patient’s own clergy.
The most important guideline is to remain sensitive to the patient’s preference. Asking patients about their beliefs or spiritual concerns in the context of exploring how they are coping in general is a useful approach in exploring these issues.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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Last reviewed September 2005 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH
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