Answers by Larry Dossey MD
Q: Can you cite specific research that supports your theory that prayer can help people heal?
In 1998, Dr. Elisabeth Targ and her colleagues at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, conducted a controlled, double-blind study of the effects of "distant healing," or prayer, on patients with advanced AIDS. Those patients receiving prayer survived in greater numbers, got sick less often, and recovered faster than those not receiving prayer. Prayer, in this study, looked like a medical breakthrough.
In 1988, Dr. Randolph Byrd conducted a similar study at San Francisco General Hospital involving patients with heart attack or severe chest pain. He found that patients receiving prayer did much better clinically than those who did not.
Currently, Dr. Mitchell Krucoff at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, is studying the effects of prayer on patients undergoing cardiac procedures such as catheterization and angioplasty. Patients receiving prayer have up to 100% fewer side effects from these procedures than people not prayed for.
These are impressive double-blind studies, meaning that no one knows who is receiving prayer and who isn't. This eliminates or at least reduces the placebo effect, which is the power of suggestion or positive thinking. However, the studies I find most impressive are not done on humans. For example, when bacteria are prayed for, they tend to grow faster; when seeds are prayed for, they tend to germinate quicker; when wounded mice are prayed for, they tend to heal faster. I like these studies because they can be done with great precision, and they eliminate all effects of suggestion and positive thinking, since we can be sure the effects aren't due to the placebo effect. Mice, seeds, and microbes presumably don't think positively!
Q: How do you see these concepts being incorporated into the current medical model?
My wife and I were recently invited to consult with a large hospital in a major city. The CEO and a few physicians on the staff had become aware of the evidence supporting the health effects of religious devotion and prayer. How, they asked, should they respond to this evidence? Should they relegate responsibility to the clergy or to hospital chaplains? Should the physicians and nurses play an active role? A meeting was held that involved prominent leaders of the community. One woman stated, "If I were sick and came to this hospital, and you didn't offer me some form of spiritual support, I would be very angry!"
This illustrates the situation our healing institutions face. The public, by and large, wants spiritual support to be available. A survey on the East Coast found that 75% of hospitalized patients believed their doctor should be concerned about their spiritual welfare; and 50% wanted their physician to pray not only for them, but with them. In response to the evidence showing a positive role of prayer and religious practices on health, nearly 50 medical schools currently offer courses in this area. The fact that our young doctors are now learning about these issues is an important indicator of where we are headed.