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Probing the Power of Prayer

Surprising results follow a study on praying for others.

WebMD Feature

When Aretha Franklin crooned the words "I'll say a little prayer for you" in the hit 1960s song she probably didn't imagine that the soulful pledge would become the stuff of serious science. But increasingly, scientists are studying the power of prayer, and in particular its role in healing people who are sick.

Most research in the field looks at how people who are sick are affected by their own spiritual beliefs and practices. In general, these studies have suggested that people who are religious seem to heal faster or cope with illness more effectively than do the nondevout.

But a few scientists have taken a further step: They're trying to find out if you can help strangers by praying for them without their knowledge.

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A recent, controversial study of cardiac patients conducted at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, concludes that this type of prayer -- known as intercessory prayer -- may indeed make a difference. "Prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care," says cardiac researcher William Harris, Ph.D., who headed the St. Luke's study. The study was published in the October 25, 1999 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Harris and team examined the health outcomes of nearly 1,000 newly admitted heart patients at St. Luke's. The patients, who all had serious cardiac conditions, were randomly assigned to two groups. Half received daily prayer for four weeks from five volunteers who believed in God and in the healing power of prayer. The other half received no prayer in conjunction with the study.

The volunteers were all Christians. The participants were not told they were in a study. The people praying were given only the first names of their patients and never visited the hospital. They were instructed to pray for the patients daily "for a speedy recovery with no complications."

Measuring Marvels

Using a lengthy list of events that could happen to cardiac patients -- such as chest pains, pneumonia, infection, and death -- Harris concluded that the group receiving prayers fared 11% better than the group that didn't, a number considered statistically significant.

Harris originally embarked on his study to see if he could replicate a similar 1988 study of intercessory prayer conducted at San Francisco General Hospital. That study -- one of the only published studies of its kind -- also found that prayer benefited patients, but by a different measure: The patients were able to go home from the hospital sooner.

In Harris' study, the length of the hospital stay and the time spent in the cardiac unit were no different for the two groups.

Still, Harris says, his study bolsters the evidence that prayer works. "To me it almost argues for another intelligence, to have to redirect this very vague information."

At the very least, he says, his results validate the need for more research. "It strengthens the field. The more studies done in independent, different places, the closer you are to the truth," he says.

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