DNC News


Jacob Schor, ND

April 19, 2006

Subject: Recent research on the power of prayer.

If you are easily offended when it comes to religious matters, delete this newsletter now.


Over the years and for various reasons, well meaning people tell me they will pray for me. What should I say to this generous offer?


If we are to believe the most recent research, I should decline these offers. According to the latest research praying for someone's recovery, at least from heart surgery, not only doesn't do any good, it actually may harm them.


At least this is what a study on therapeutic prayer published in the April issue of the American Heart Journal tells us.


The study was conducted by Herbert Benson and Jeffery Dusek at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts . They followed 1802 patients undergoing coronary bypass operations. One set of patients received prayers from several Christian prayer groups, while another group received no prayers. The patients knew they were in the trial but neither they nor their doctors knew which of the groups they were in.

The prayers made no detectable difference. In the first month after surgery, 52 per cent of prayed-for patients and 51 per cent of non-prayed-for patients suffered one or more complications, the researchers found ( American Heart Journal , vol 151, p 934).

Knowing you were being prayed for was a problem. A third group of patients received the same prayers as the first group, but these patients were told they were being prayed for. Of these, 59 per cent suffered complications - significantly more than the patients left unsure of whether they were receiving prayers. In hindsight one wishes the study had an additional control group, one which had, “not a hope of a prayer,” that is knew they were not being prayed for. [i]

Not all research speaks so negatively about this subject.


Research conducted at the Mayo Clinic and published in 2001 showed slightly better but still dismal results. In this study 799 coronary care unit patients were randomly assigned when they left the hospital to either a prayer group or to a control group. The ‘prayer group' received prayers by one or more persons on their behalf at least once a week for six months with 5 different people praying for each patient. During that six month period, the patients were tracked for what the researchers called an endpoint, or things they didn't want to happen or hoped to postpone through prayer. The end point was any of the following: death, cardiac arrest, rehospitalization for cardiovascular disease, coronary revascularization, or an emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease. Patients were divided into a high-risk group or a low-risk group. After six months, a primary end point had occurred in 25.6% of the prayer group and 29.3% of the control group. Among high-risk patients, 31.0% in the prayer group vs. 33.3% in the control group experienced a primary end point. Among low-risk patients, a primary end point occurred in 17.0% in the prayer group vs. 24.1% in the control. At first look these numbers look good. In every case a higher percentage of people in the control group, who weren't prayed for, reached an “end point”, that is something unwanted happened, compared to the prayed for group. Yet in none of these cases were the differences large enough to reach statistical significance. Thus the study concluded that prayer had no significant effect on medical outcome. [ii]

An earlier study did show some slight but statistically significant benefit. Published in 1999, the study followed 990 patients who were admitted for heart conditions to a Kansas City , Missouri hospital. Patients were randomized to either receive prayers or not. Outside prayer groups were given the first names of the patients and prayed for them daily for a month. Patients did not know they were being prayed for and the people doing the praying did not know and never met the patients. At the time of discharge patients were given a score by researchers who review the charts without knowing whether the patients were in the prayer group or not. According to these scores, the prayed for patients did slightly better. Prayer did not shorten the length of stay in the hospital; this was the same for both groups. [iii]

A study conducted in Florida and published in 2000 on patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed some benefit from direct, in person, intensive prayer. All the patients in this trial received a “3-day intervention, including 6 hours of education and 6 hours of direct-contact intercessory prayer.” The “Patients receiving in-person intercessory prayer showed significant overall improvement during 1-year follow-up.” In other words at least for arthritis having someone pray a lot for you and in person, helps but prayers from a distance don't. [iv]


On the other hand a 2004 study on prayer to treat children with psychiatric disorders conducted in Australia detected no effect. [v]

Probably the most telling publication comes from the Cochrane Database. This British group specializes in evaluating and drawing conclusions from already published research. Finding and analyzing all published data in 2000, the group concluded:

“Data in this review are too inconclusive to guide those wishing to uphold or refute the effect of intercessory prayer on health care outcomes. In the light of the best available data, there are no grounds to change current practices. There are few completed trials of the value of intercessory prayer, and the evidence presented so far is interesting enough to justify further study. If prayer is seen as a human endeavour it may or may not be beneficial, and further trials could uncover this. It could be the case that any effects are due to elements beyond present scientific understanding that will, in time, be understood . If any benefit derives from God's response to prayer it may be beyond any such trials to prove or disprove .”


Of course thinking about these different studies brings up all sorts of questions that may not be considered polite to ask. A number of assumptions are made in these studies. First that all prayers are equal. Yet you will find many adherents to particular religions who deeply believe that their beliefs and practices are more in tune than practitioners of other religions. Could they be right? Could one religion's prayers work better than another?


There is one study that stands out to me and is worth drawing some attention to.

This study published n the British Medical Journal in 2001 which produced statistically significant benefits and was conducted in Petah-Tiqva, Israel [vi] This study was bizarre and I wonder what prompted the researchers to even attempt what they did.


Patients who presented at a university hospital with blood infections over a six year period, from 1990-1996, were all selected for the study. The study was conducted in 2,000; a full four years after the last patient presented and ten years after the first patients arrived at the hospital. Following classic double blind randomized protocols 1,691 of the total 3,393 patients were put into an intervention group which was prayed for retroactively. Catch that last word, “retroactively.” The patients had already come and gone from the hospital. Patients were not singled out for prayer, instead the entire intervention group was prayed for. When the codes were broken and the data analyzed those prayed for had a lower mortality rate, 28% vs. 30% and length of hospital stay and duration of fever were also significantly shorter. In other words prayers for a group of people conducted in the present positively improved health outcomes as much as a decade earlier. This is the sort of study that is worth chewing over, even if the results in time prove to not be true, the idea certainly is worth rumination over.


I don't think we've seen the last of these prayer studies. Rest assured that somewhere God is watching all this carefully and she's quite entertained.




Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42.

Related Articles, Links

Click here to read 
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.

Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW Jr, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL.

Mind/Body Medical Institute, Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA. hbenson@bidmc.harvard.edu

BACKGROUND: Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. METHODS: Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality. RESULTS: In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups. CONCLUSIONS: 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.

PMID: 16569567 [PubMed - in process]




Mayo Clin Proc. 2001 Dec;76(12):1192-8.

Related Articles, Links

Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial.

Aviles JM , Whelan SE , Hernke DA , Williams BA , Kenny KE , O'Fallon WM , Kopecky SL .

Mayo Physician Alliance for Clinical Trials Coordinating Center, Mayo Clinic, Rochester , Minn. 55902 , USA .

OBJECTIVE: To determine the effect of intercessory prayer, a widely practiced complementary therapy, on cardiovascular disease progression after hospital discharge. PATIENTS AND METHODS: In this randomized controlled trial conducted between 1997 and 1999, a total of 799 coronary care unit patients were randomized at hospital discharge to the intercessory prayer group or to the control group. Intercessory prayer, ie, prayer by 1 or more persons on behalf of another, was administered at least once a week for 26 weeks by 5 intercessors per patient. The primary end point after 26 weeks was any of the following: death, cardiac arrest, rehospitalization for cardiovascular disease, coronary revascularization, or an emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease. Patients were divided into a high-risk group based on the presence of any of 5 risk factors (age = or >70 years, diabetes mellitus, prior myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular disease, or peripheral vascular disease) or a low-risk group (absence of risk factors) for subsequent primary events. RESULTS: At 26 weeks, a primary end point had occurred in 25.6% of the intercessory prayer group and 29.3% of the control group (odds ratio [OR], 0.83 [95% confidence interval (CI), 0.60-1.14]; P=.25). Among high-risk patients, 31.0% in the prayer group vs 33.3% in the control group (OR, 0.90 [95% CI, 0.60-1.34]; P=.60) experienced a primary end point. Among low-risk patients, a primary end point occurred in 17.0% in the prayer group vs 24.1% in the control group (OR, 0.65 [95% CI, 0.20-1.36]; P=.12). CONCLUSIONS: As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit.



Arch Intern Med. 1999 Oct 25;159(19):2273-8.

Related Articles, Links

A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit.

Harris WS , Gowda M , Kolb JW , Strychacz CP , Vacek JL , Jones PG , Forker A , O'Keefe JH , McCallister BD .

Mid America Heart Institute, Saint Luke's Hospital, Kansas City , MO , USA .

CONTEXT: Intercessory prayer (praying for others) has been a common response to sickness for millennia, but it has received little scientific attention. The positive findings of a previous controlled trial of intercessory prayer have yet to be replicated. OBJECTIVE: To determine whether remote, intercessory prayer for hospitalized, cardiac patients will reduce overall adverse events and length of stay. DESIGN: Randomized, controlled, double-blind, prospective, parallel-group trial. SETTING: Private, university-associated hospital. PATIENTS: Nine hundred ninety consecutive patients who were newly admitted to the coronary care unit (CCU). INTERVENTION: At the time of admission, patients were randomized to receive remote, intercessory prayer (prayer group) or not (usual care group). The first names of patients in the prayer group were given to a team of outside intercessors who prayed for them daily for 4 weeks. Patients were unaware that they were being prayed for, and the intercessors did not know and never met the patients. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: The medical course from CCU admission to hospital discharge was summarized in a CCU course score derived from blinded, retrospective chart review. RESULTS: Compared with the usual care group (n = 524), the prayer group (n = 466) had lower mean +/- SEM weighted (6.35 +/- 0.26 vs 7.13 +/- 0.27; P=.04) and unweighted (2.7 +/- 0.1 vs 3.0 +/- 0.1; P=.04) CCU course scores. Lengths of CCU and hospital stays were not different. CONCLUSIONS: Remote, intercessory prayer was associated with lower CCU course scores. This result suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.

Publication Types:



South Med J. 2000 Dec;93(12):1177-86.

Related Articles, Links

Effects of intercessory prayer on patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Matthews DA , Marlowe SM , MacNutt FS .

Arthritis/Pain Treatment Center, Clearwater , Fla , USA .

BACKGROUND: Many individuals pray during times of illness, but the clinical effects of prayer are not well-understood. METHODS: We prospectively studied a cohort of 40 patients (mean age, 62 years; 100% white; 82% women) at a private rheumatology practice. All had class II or III rheumatoid arthritis and took stable doses of antirheumatic medications. All received a 3-day intervention, including 6 hours of education and 6 hours of direct-contact intercessory prayer. Nineteen randomly selected sample patients had 6 months of daily, supplemental intercessory prayer by individuals located elsewhere. Ten arthritis-specific outcome variables were measured at baseline and at 3-month intervals for 1 year. RESULTS: Patients receiving in-person intercessory prayer showed significant overall improvement during 1-year follow-up. No additional effects from supplemental, distant intercessory prayer were found. CONCLUSIONS: In-person intercessory prayer may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Supplemental, distant intercessory prayer offers no additional benefits.



Australas Psychiatry. 2004 Dec;12(4):386-9.

Related Articles, Links

Pilot study investigating the effect of intercessory prayer in the treatment of child psychiatric disorders.

Mathai J , Bourne A .

Royal Children's Hospital Mental Health Service, Parkville , Vic. , Australia . john.mathai@rch.org.au

OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether intercessory prayer had an effect on the outcomes of a group of children with psychiatric conditions, using a triple blind randomized study design. CONCLUSION: This study was unable to show any additional benefits for patients who received intercessory prayer compared to those who received treatment as usual.



BMJ. 2001 Dec 22-29;323(7327):1450-1.

Related Articles, Links

Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial.

Leibovici L .

Department of Medicine, Beilinson Campus, Rabin Medical Center , Petah-Tiqva 49100 , Israel . leibovic@post.tau.ac.il

OBJECTIVE: To determine whether remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, said for a group of patients with a bloodstream infection, has an effect on outcomes. DESIGN: Double blind, parallel group, randomised controlled trial of a retroactive intervention. SETTING: University hospital. SUBJECTS: All 3393 adult patients whose bloodstream infection was detected at the hospital in 1990-6. INTERVENTION: In July 2000 patients were randomised to a control group and an intervention group. A remote, retroactive intercessory prayer was said for the well being and full recovery of the intervention group. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Mortality in hospital, length of stay in hospital, and duration of fever. RESULTS: Mortality was 28.1% (475/1691) in the intervention group and 30.2% (514/1702) in the control group (P for difference=0.4). Length of stay in hospital and duration of fever were significantly shorter in the intervention group than in the control group (P=0.01 and P=0.04, respectively). CONCLUSION: Remote, retroactive intercessory prayer said for a group is associated with a shorter stay in hospital and shorter duration of fever in patients with a bloodstream infection and should be considered for use in clinical practice .


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