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Haven't got a prayer.

Haven't Got a Prayer

Does intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God have any effect on a patient's medical condition and recovery in the hospital? How are the effects characterized, if present? Claiming that the medical literature has not adequately considered, let alone conclusively resolved, the healing effectiveness of "one of the oldest forms of therapy," Randolph C. Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Medical Center, designed a randomized double-blind trial to answer these two questions. ("Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population" Southern Medical Journal 81:7 [1988], 826-29). Over a ten month period, 450 patients were admitted to San Francisco General's CCU; after informed consent was obtained, 192 patients were randomized to a group for whom intercessory prayers were offered, while 201 patients comprised the control group. Fifty-seven patients refused to participate in the study for personal reasons, religious convictions, or unwillingness to sign the consent form.

While strict randomization was used with respect to patients, the use of criteria for selecting the "intercessors" was quite explicit. These "were `born again' Christians with an active Christian life as manifested by daily devotional Christian fellowship with a local church." While the group of intercessors did have some ecumenical flavor to it, comprised of members from Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, for some reason adherents of the Jewish faith were not deemed to have much pull with the "Judeo-Christian God." In any case, the intercessors were informed of the patient's first name, diagnosis, and general condition, and requested to pray daily for a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death.

Their randomized selection did not bias the health condition of the two study groups: there were "no statistical differences between the two groups" at the commencement of the study. However, the results at the end of the trial revealed fewer complications--congestive heart failure, cardiopulmonary arrest, pneumonia--and fewer requirements for "ventilatory support, antibiotics, or diuretics" among the prayer group. It is possible, Byrd suggests, that even greater differences would have been observed had the research design achieved "pure groups"; that is, subjects in the control group were not prevented from offering their own prayers nor could the effects of prayers by others be accounted for. Still, the differences between the two groups were substantial enough for Byrd to conclude that "intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God" has measurable effects that are "presumed to be beneficial."

Byrd's questions and research proposal are not new. In 1883, Francis Galton affirmed that the question of whether "sick persons who pray or are prayed for recover on the average more rapidly than one that appears to be a very suitable topic for statistical inquiry." Galton himself concluded that prayer was not temporally beneficial, based in part on the fact that sovereign rulers, whom he regarded as a much-prayed-for class of persons, had the shortest life-expectancy of any occupational group. In 1965, C.R.B. Joyce and R.M.C. Welldon took up Galton's challenge and reported on the efficacy of prayer in a double-blind clinical trial of forty-eight patients with various forms of rheumatic disease (Journal of Chronic Disease 18 [1965], 367-77). They estimated that each patient received fifteen hours of prayer during a six-month period, though the method of prayer was "silent meditation" rather than a verbal petition, but they could determine no significant differences attributable to prayer.

Together, these various studies suggest a health care version of Pascal's wager: Prayer doesn't appear to hurt, and it may help, recovery. They do, in any case, add a whole new meaning to the phrase "you haven't got a prayer."
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Title Annotation:effect of prayer on sick person's recovery
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:May 1, 1989
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