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Harvard prayer experiment

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The Harvard prayer experiment was a scientific study to qualify and quantity the effects (if any) of prayer to affect people.

With support from the Templeton Foundation, cardiologist Herbert Benson and his colleagues randomly assigned 1802 cardiac bypass patients to one of three conditions:

  • Group 1: those told they may or may not be prayed for (and who weren't)
  • Group 2: those told they may or may not be prayed for (and who were)
  • Group 3: those told they would be prayed for (and who were)

For those facing surgery or battling disease, the prayers of others can be a comfort. Researchers in the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), the largest study to examine the effects of intercessory prayer—prayer provided by others—evaluated the impact of such prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The STEP team, composed of investigators at six academic medical centers, including Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee; Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts; Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida; Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C; and the Mind/Body Medical Institute, found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications. The study also found that patients who knew they were receiving intercessory prayer fared worse. The paper appears in the April issue of American Heart Journal.

“The primary goal of STEP was to evaluate whether intercessory prayer or the knowledge of receiving it would influence recovery after bypass surgery,” said co-author Jeffery A. Dusek, Harvard Medical School instructor of medicine and Associate Research Director at the Mind/Body Medical Institute. Each year, 350,000 Americans have coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Though medical techniques and post-operative care have improved dramatically in recent years, the surgery is stressful. Earlier studies have shown that many patients enlist friends and family to provide private prayer for support during surgery and recovery.

STEP investigators enrolled 1,802 bypass surgery patients from six hospitals and randomly assigned each to one of three groups: 604 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayers (Group 1); 597 patients did not receive prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayer (Group 2); and 601 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive it (Group 3).

Caregivers and independent auditors comparing case reports to medical records were unaware of the patients’ assignments throughout the study. The study enlisted members of three Christian groups, two Catholic and one Protestant, to provide prayer throughout the multi-year study. The researchers approached other denominations, but none were able to make the time commitments that the study required.

Results

Some patients were told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer: complications occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1) versus 51 percent of those who did not receive prayer (Group 2). Complications occurred in 59 percent of patients who were told they would receive prayer (Group 3) versus 52 percent, who also received prayer, but were uncertain of receiving it (Group 1). Major complications and thirty-day mortality were similar across the three groups. Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups. (13 in group 1, 16 in Group 2, and 14 in Group 3)

Not only did prayer not help the patients, those that were told they were being prayed for experienced more complications.

Prayers don't help heart surgery patients

Commentary from William J. Cromie, Harvard News Office

Many - if not most people - believe that prayer will help you through a medical crisis such as heart bypass surgery. If a large group of people outside yourself, your family, and your friends joined in intercessory prayer, that should be even more helpful, so such reasoning goes.

Third-party prayer has no effect at all on recovery from surgery without complications, noted Jeffery Dusek, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Prayer motivational.jpg

Researchers have been trying to prove this and even to measure the effect. So far, two studies found that third-party prayers bestow benefits, but two others concluded that there are no benefits. Now, the largest study to date, covering 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals, supported the latter research.

Not only that, but patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of it.

Those who conducted the study are quick to say that its results do not challenge the existence of God. Also, it did not try to address such religious questions as the efficacy of one form of prayer over others, whether God answers intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another, according to the Rev. Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Other researchers in the study, who include investigators from Harvard Medical School, Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Mind/Body Medical Institute, agree. Also involved were teams from medical institutions in Oklahoma City, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and Rochester, Minn.

"The primary goal of the study was limited to evaluating whether intercessory prayer or the knowledge of receiving it would influence recovery after bypass surgery," notes Jeffery Dusek, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. The evaluation found that third-party prayer has no effect at all on recovery from surgery without complications, and that patients who knew they were receiving prayer fared worse that those who were not prayed for. STEP up to pray

Known as STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), it investigated patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, who include 350,000 people in the United States and 800,000 people worldwide each year. Patients of any or no religious faith were eligible to participate. Among those chosen were Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and people of no faith.

The 1,802 participants were divided into three groups of about 600 each, with a mean age of about 64 years. One group received no prayers. A second group received prayers after being told that they may or may not be prayed for. The third group was informed that others would pray for them for 14 days starting on the night before their surgery.

The prayers came from three Christian groups, two Catholic, and one Protestant. The investigators report that, "We were unable to locate other Christian, Jewish, or non-Christian [groups] that could receive the daily prayer list required for the study." Such lists provided the first name and last initial of the patients.

The intercessors said a standard prayer "for successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." This system provides a practical way to conduct the experiment, but limits the results to one type of prayer.

There were all kinds of complications from the surgeries, including 197 cardiac complications for the group who knew they were receiving prayers versus 187 and 158 in the other two groups. These and other complications occurred in 59 percent of those who were prayed for, compared to 51 percent of those who received no prayers, and 52 percent in the group who received prayers but didn't know it.

Deaths during the 30 days after surgery were similar across groups, 13 and 16 in the prayed-for, 14 in the no-pray group.

The big unanswered question is why there was an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. The researchers admit they have "no clear explanation." To find out, they say, "will require additional study."

The STEP study was paid for by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that supports research on the boundary between science and religion. Medical centers that participated, in addition to Harvard Medical School and its two affiliates, were Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, which supported the research done at its site, Intergris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, the Mayo Clinic, and the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. A detailed report appears in the April 4 issue of the American Heart Journal. The lead author is Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

See also


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