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The Healing Power Of Prayer

Does the healing power of prayer really help? Or is it all hype?

A new study from this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests prayer can be beneficial.

The surprising twist is who is doing the praying reports CBS News Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy.

Researchers at the Mid America Heart Institute randomly divided almost a thousand heart patients into two groups.

The first group was prayed for daily by volunteers for four weeks. The second group was not. Here's the twist:

What makes this study unique is the patients were prayed for without their knowledge.

The patients and their families were unaware they were part of a study. And the volunteers who prayed for "a speedy recovery with no complications" did not know the patients - they only knew their first names.

The result: after four weeks, the prayed-for patients experienced about 10% fewer complications, ranging from chest pain to cardiac arrest.

This suggests that prayer may be an effective addition to traditional medicine.

Comparison of this study to past studies on prayer and healing

In scores of studies, medical research has shown that people who believe in God or in prayer generally fare better than those who do not.

For example, a Dartmouth Medical School study found that older people who underwent open-heart surgery and lacked social support from an organized group, or said they received no comfort from religion, were three times more likely to die within six months of their operation than those who said they did get solace from religion.

A Duke University study found an association between increased immune function and regular attendance at religious services.

Prayer may actually be the most traditional of therapies. Long before medicine had its wonder, prayer was almost the only medicine. In fact, the same person dispensed medical and spiritual care.

Criticism towards this study

Of course there will be critics, not only to this particular study but also to the commingling of religion with science.

You'll have people that criticize the methodology of the studies - they may question how the data is evaluated or interpreted.

They may cite conflicting findings. And others may even question the ethics of a doctor who departs from his or her expertise to promote a "non-medical agenda."

Yet some evidence suggests that doctors are open to the possibility that religious beliefs, or faith, can heal.

At a (1996) meeting for the American Academy of Family Physicians, a survey of doctors found that nearly all of them felt a person's faith coul help the physical healing process.

And 75% said they thought the prayers of others might help as well. But what really matters is the patient.

One poll reported that 48% of hospital inpatients wanted their physicians to pray with them. Doctors should not dismiss their patients' faith. They should recognize it and honor it.

The next step

In medicine, when you're puzzled by an outcome, you pursue it. We need more studies done in this vein to make it as scientifically valid as possible.

What would be interested to see is a study done on cancer patients, where survival is looked at.

And as medical schools increasingly offer courses in religion and spirituality, and as reports continue to indicate interest in this subject among both physicians and the general public, it is essential to examine how medicine will address this issue.

Bottom line, prayer should not be put on the shelf of alternative therapies next to aromatherapy. When people say they're praying for you, take it seriously.

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