Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Medical Controversy: The Power of Prayer?

Is prayer better than a placebo? Would it help to have lots of people praying for you? Or should they rather spend their time and energy doing something else?

A lot has been written back and forth on the issue. Some studies find prayer effective and more than a few popular books have been written on the subject. More studies find little or no effect at all. I don't think as many books have been written on that side of the debate. Certainly they don't seem to sell as well.

Back in 2002 A Prayer Before Dying appeared in Wired magazine. A story about the life and death of Elisabeth Targ. Elisabeth was a psychiatrist who ran a small double blind study about the power of prayer to help AIDS victims in 1995. The initial, albeit small, sample showed great promise so she went on to do more research. On the face of it you'd expect the article to them move on to her subsequent research and especially the attempts to find significant results in a study that wasn't turning out so well for the position of prayer. And those areas are covered. But the irony is that Elisabeth Targ was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumour. The results of that diagnosis make everything that happened afterwards even more pointed and poignant.

Trying to find a reproducible, tangible, and useful effect of prayer to help illness is an ongoing effort. So many people assume that there is a connection that I don't think the research will stop anytime soon. Even if little has been found so far. Of course for those who think there is a link each study that contradicts their conclusion has to be fundamentally flawed and thrown out.

It's human nature of course.

But what happens if we

end up with more studies like this one? The simply titled Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer? A study in which some people were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  1. People who were told they may or may not be prayed for and who were actually prayed for
  2. People who were told they may or may not be prayed for and who weren't actually prayed for
  3. People who were told they were going to be prayed for and who were prayed for
Now this is just one study. It isn't conclusive proof one way or the other. It is, however, a well run clinical study looking at the issue. By the way I like the fact that it's structured so that none of the patients is lied to. No patient is told they will get prayer and then not prayed for. I suppose that combination wouldn't have passed the ethics board. Still it is one study among many. A study with an interesting conclusion:
Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
In other words... the group that knew they were being prayed for (and there were actual prayers) had the more complications. There was no difference between the first two groups. In this case not knowing if you were being prayed for or not didn't make a difference. So knowing you're being prayed for turned out to be the worst option. That's not what most people would expect.

What happens if prayer has a negative effect? What if assuming the prayers of others will help actually hurts your chances? What will people make of studies if things turn out this way instead?

And will a book telling you to avoid the prayers of others ever make the best seller lists?

No comments: