Study of Heart Patients Sees No Power in Prayer
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. A clinical study on the power of prayer. This is a particular kind of prayer, it's called intercessory prayer, where people pray for others they don't even know. The study says it doesn't work and in fact may complicate recovery. The data comes out next week in the American Heart Journal. We're joined by Doctor Jeffrey Dusek, Harvard Medical School and a study leader.
Dr. Dusek, welcome to program.
Dr. JEFFREY DUSEK (Harvard Medical School): Thank you for having me on the show.
CHADWICK: You had 1,800 heart bypass patients; you divided them up into three different groups. You told group one you would be prayed for; you told group two you might be prayed for or might not; and group three, they weren't getting prayers. Then you had three different congregations carry out these prayers. They don't know the patients. This is just really testing the idea of praying for someone. And what are your findings?
Dr. DUSEK: We found that the group that was certain of receiving intercessory prayer had a higher complication rate than the group that was uncertain and did receive prayer. We found that the group that was not receiving prayer was similar to the group that was receiving prayer. So in fact, the knowledge of receiving prayer seemed to result in modest level of increase in complications in that group.
CHADWICK: If you knew you were having this intercessory prayer, strangers you didn't know praying for you, somehow that complicated your recovery in some way.
Dr. DUSEK: It did. And essentially it was in one small complication. It was a rapid heartbeat, essentially.
CHADWICK: And how do you explain that; sort of anxiety, because you're getting prayed for?
Dr. DUSEK: We don't know. In fact, that's what further studies may need to evaluate. It's possible that the methods we used in this randomized control trials actually raise some undue or unexpected psychological distress in the people that were told that they would receive prayer.
CHADWICK: Dr. Dusek, have you studied whether intercessory prayer is different in some way from personal prayer; that is say, praying for a family member?
Dr. DUSEK: We have not. But that might be some areas for further inquiry. In fact, one of the results from this study may be that we really need to be curious of what information that medical professionals provide to patients. So in this case, we provide information they would receive prayer. The hypothesis was that that would reduce their complication rate. That's actually the exact opposite of what we found.
CHADWICK: I wonder about studies about prayer, Dr. Dusek, because I hear anecdotal stories of people saying prayer works, I was sick, I got better through the power of prayer. You must hear those stories all the time, you're a doctor.
Dr. DUSEK: We do. I'm actually a psychologist, so I'm not a physician. But we do hear this all the time, anecdotally. And in fact some of our co-authors who are clergy members say this won't influence what they do. It's a scientific study with a lot of limitations. I think it's very complicated and a lot of the critics of the study will say it's impossible to study the effects of prayer. And that may be one of the results of the study. We do think that scientific inquiry can study complicated phenomena. Now we couldn't control for all the background prayer that the participants were receiving from family and friends and others, of which we know is substantial; about 95 percent across all three groups were receiving intercessory prayer that they knew about.
So we're looking at the effects of prayer above and beyond what is provided by friends and family and others. Now it may be impossible to disentangle those. I certainly don't want to be the one that says intercessory prayer can't be studies scientifically; I'll leave that for others to decide for themselves.
CHADWICK: Dr. Jeffrey Dusek from Harvard Medical School, a leader of the study that's reported next week in the American Heart Journal on the power of intercessory prayer. Dr. Dusek, thank you for being with us on DAY TO DAY.
Dr. Dusek: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.