“Who You Gonna Call?”: Others’ Prayers Impact On Illness, Redux

Posted on September 24, 2012 by

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My mother likes to compliment herself on her cooking.

“That was truly delicious!” she’ll exclaim, her mouth still full of her last bite of a fancy beef stew.

And I was able to make it during such a hectic day. It’s great to be organized.”

Truth is, her cooking is great–but the point is that sometimes we really just appreciate something we’ve produced–and would like to let the listening world know.

The blogger’s way of announcing her own self-appreciation is a re-post.

And turns out, as I was skimming through some of our past pieces, I really liked this one. It may not be the most statistically complex, others may take issue with the research found here, but I find this topic compelling–as apparently a number of researchers continue to do, despite skepticism–and I returned to it with appreciation. 

Not only do I think it’s “truly delicious,” as Mom would say–but it references “Ghostbusters” while discussing prayer and illness. Come on–that’s worth a second go-round, no?

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Remember Ray Parker, Jr.’s advice from the theme song of that iconic 1980s film?

“If there’s something weird
and it don’t look good

Who you gonna call?”

The song’s a bit goofy, but the question’s a good one. And when things “don’t look good,” I’m hard pressed to find one mortal soul who thinks it’s a good idea to call for the Ghostbusters.

Many people, backs to the wall, call on God to intervene for them, and far be it from me to say He doesn’t. The research on this point, at least, is clear: religious people who believe in G-d and in His Divine intervention in human life do better when faced with catastrophic illness than those who put their faith in more mortal means.

Well, you COULD call on these guys in your hour of need. . .but isn’t the concept of prayer just a tad bit more inspiring?

But more interesting to me than that, even, was the research done on something called intercessory prayer, or prayer by one person on behalf of another–and how seriously ill people responded to intercessory prayer (IP), sometimes whether or not they knew someone was praying for them.

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Let’s take a look.

Intercessory prayer first came to the public’s attention with an article in the Southern Medical Journal’s July 1998 issue by Dr. Robert C Byrd, at San Francisco General Medical Center, entitled “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population.” Byrd studied 393 people admitted to the cardiac care unit at San Francisco General hospital, and, following the randomized double-blind protocol, had half of the patients prayed for  by born-again Christians who knew the assigned patients’ names, diagnoses, and general conditions. They prayed for a speedy recover and for  “prevention of complications and death.”

The control group–the ones not being prayed for–required  ventilator assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics significantly more often than patients in the IP group.

After taking a look at his data, Byrd wrote the following conclusion in his article: “These data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to a CCU [cardiac care unit].”
A follow-up study by cardiac researcher William H. Harris, Ph.D., in 1999′s edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine, entitled “A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit,” utilized a similar format, assessing patients at Mid America Heart Institute, Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. As in Byrd’s study, the patients did not know they were being prayed for. Harris claimed to replicate Byrd’s findings.

Clearly having someone praying for you if you’ve got heart trouble seems to be better than calling on Ghostbusters.But what about other illnesses?Well, that brings us to 2001 when Leonard Leibovici, at the Department of Medicine for the Rabin Medical Center in Israel, moved past cardiac care in his study, “Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial.”

Using a randomized, controlled trial, Leibovi assigned half of 3393 adult patients found to have bloodstream infections at the hospital from 1990-1996 to not just intercessory prayer, but–get this–retroactive IP (scientists are unusual), so the prayers said for the full recovery of the patients were said in 2000Frankly, this sounds a bit like shutting the barn door after the cow’s out to me, but this study was actually published in the British Journal of Medicine, so I’m clearly missing something, as the journal’s editors are no fools.

Turns out mortality was significantly lower for the IP group, AND (and I quote this here so that you won’t feel statistically deprived, and so you’ll remember why you don’t read full research studies with all that “p is greater” than mumbo-jumbo) “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).”

The conclusion? This one’s worth quoting verbatim, too, more for its shock value than for its fascinating statistical worth: “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.”

(My sophisticated understanding of the p-value, upon which all statistical meaning rests. Brought to you by zazzle.com)

Honestly? That’s pretty wild stuff for a scientist to say.

And let’s look at IP another way–in the treatment of illness-related anxiety–in a study conducted by William Michael Green in 1993. In his doctoral dissertation, Green again ran a randomized double-blind study, this time on patients with transient anxiety following pituitary surgery at a hospital in California. Before the surgery, there were no signficant differences either in pain or in level of anxiety between the  groups. As you might have guessed by now, well, the group that had IP had less anxiety in comparison to other groups–a correlation Green found “highly significant.” [See "The therapeutic effects of distant intercessory prayer and patients' enhanced positive expectations on recovery rates and anxiety levels of hospitalized neurosurgical pituitary patients: A double-blind study" in  Dissertation Abstracts International.]

I could go on–and, of course, as seems to be true in so much of medical research, I could quote you studies that would indicate that IP is not, in fact, significantly correlated with better outcomes, but I thought I’d leave you with a meta-analysis [I mean, what blog post is complete without quoting a meta-analysis, I ask you?],  conducted by  Wayne B. Jonas, MD,  and Cindy Crawford [that's honestly her name--I couldn't have made it up], both from the Department of Family Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Maryland.

They wrote a 2003 book entitled Healing, Intention and Energy Medicine: Science, Research Methods and Clinical Implications summarizing the research and its clinical implications on spiritual healing and medicine.  In their review of 90 randomized controlled studies dealing with IP, they found that positive outcomes  were reported in 70-80% of clinical and laboratory studies.

You know what? I’m certain that if you look, you can find studies that contradict the research I’ve found here. It’s always true–research is hard to pin down, almost impossible to replicate–and there tend to be a multiplicity of views supported. Just look at the research done on the use of antidepressants in bipolar depression. They’re good, they’re bad, they’re great, they’re terrible–depends on the research you’re looking at that second.

But of all the treatments that cancer patients have to endure, having someone pray for them–when they don’t  even know it’s happening, for crying out loud–seems to be one of the lesser evils.

So when something’s weird, and it don’t look good–who YOU gonna call?

I think I’ll call the God squad.