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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(3):813

Although prayer for the sick is an important cultural aspect of some societies and religions, the effects of intercessory prayer (praying for others) on the medical outcome has not been extensively studied. In a 1988 study, Byrd reported that intercessory prayer had a statistically significant beneficial effect on the hospital course of patients in a coronary care unit (CCU). In an attempt to replicate Byrd's findings, Harris and associates conducted a study to evaluate whether intercessory prayer had an effect on complications and the duration of hospital stay in CCU patients.

The 990 CCU patients in the study were randomly assigned by the hospital chaplain's secretary to a prayer group (466 patients) or a group for whom intercessory praying was not done (524 patients). After a patient was assigned to the prayer group, an intercessory prayer team leader was called and given the first name of the patient. The team leader then called four other members of the team. There were 15 teams of five members each. Other than the patient's first name, no information about the patient was given to the intercessors, and patients did not know that the prayers were being made for them.

The intercessors represented a variety of religious affiliations, and they were asked to pray daily for the next 28 days for “a speedy recovery with no complications.” A period of 28 days was chosen as the duration of intercessory praying so that prayer would continue throughout the hospitalization for at least 95 percent of patients. It was not known if other prayers were being offered for the patients outside of the study context.

A scoring system specific for the CCU was used for assessing the severity of comorbid conditions and the medical interventions required during hospitalization. A score of 1 was assigned for each serious event or complication. Hence, the higher the score, the higher the probability of adverse outcomes.

The mean CCU score in the prayer group was 11 percent lower than that in the group for whom intercessory praying was not conducted. The prayer group had 10 percent fewer scoring elements than the usual-care group. The mean lengths of stay in the CCU and in the hospital (after initiation of prayer) were similar in the two groups. The median duration of the hospital stay was 4 days in both groups.

The authors conclude that supplementary, remote, blinded, intercessory prayer produced a measurable improvement in the medical outcomes of critically ill patients in the CCU. The authors note that their findings would be expected to occur by chance alone only one out of 25 times, but chance still remains a possible explanation for the results. These findings are consistent with Byrd's assessment—that intercessory prayer lowered the scores that reflected a more complicated hospital course but did not significantly alter the length of stay. More studies are needed to validate the findings of this and other studies and to explore the potential role of prayer as an adjunct to standard medical care.

editor's note: Because of its subject, this study stands out like a red flag in a highly respected scientific journal. That a significant number of CCU patients had better outcomes if prayers were offered may or may not be explained by chance. This type of study will have ardent proponents and detractors. The fact that an article of this kind is even published in a scientific journal is noteworthy. Putting complementary medicine to the test has become a priority of the scientific community. Whether or not you agree with the results, at least the data are becoming available. —b.a.

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