By Terry Sanderson


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Praying for the sick has absolutely no effect on their rates of recovery indeed, it seems to make them worse and can lead to post-operative complications, according to a large-scale and authoritative study from the Mayo Clinic in the USA.

The long-anticipated study, begun almost ten years ago and involving 1,800 patients, is the most scientifically rigorous effort yet to test the power of prayer. During that decade, the US government has spent a mind-boggling $2.3 million on its own research into the supposed medical effects of prayer.

At least 10 studies have been carried out in the last six years, with mixed results. The new study was intended to overcome flaws in the earlier investigations.

In the study, the researchers monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals who received coronary bypass surgery, in which doctors reroute circulation around a clogged vein or artery. The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for, and half were told that they might or might not receive prayers.

The researchers asked the members of three congregations to deliver the prayers, using the patients’ first names and the initials of their last names. The congregations were told that they could pray in their own ways, but they were instructed to include the phrase, “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”

Analysing complications in the 30 days after the operations, the researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. In another of the study’s findings, a significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for 59 percent suffered complications, compared with 51 percent of those who were uncertain. The authors left open the possibility that this was a chance finding. But they said that being aware of the strangers’ prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety. “It may have made them uncertain, wondering ‘am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team’?” Dr. Bethea said.

The study also found that more patients in the uninformed prayer group 18 percent suffered major complications, like heart attack or stroke, compared with 13 percent in the group that did not receive prayers. In their report, the researchers suggested that this finding might also be a result of chance. One reason the study was so widely anticipated was that it was led by Dr. Benson, who in his work has emphasised the soothing power of personal prayer and meditation.

At least one earlier study found lower complication rates in patients who received intercessory prayers; others found no difference. But a 1997 study at the University of New Mexico, involving 40 alcoholics in rehabilitation, found that the men and women who knew they were being prayed for actually fared worse.

The new study was rigorously designed to avoid problems like the ones that came up in the earlier studies. But the findings will have absolutely no effect on those who think that prayer has some sort of ability to affect outcomes. Bob Barth, the spiritual director of a Missouri prayer ministry, said the findings would not affect the ministry’s mission. “A person of faith would say that this study is interesting,” Mr. Barth said, “but we’ve been praying a long time and we’ve seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.”

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