Study says: Prayer doesn't benefit heart patients

Critics say prayer can't be studied

Research studies on the effects of prayer on healing have yielded contrasting findings, but can — and should — medicine try to quantify and qualify religious faith as a healing modality?

"It seems to me that it is ethically suspect to subject prayer and medical outcomes to scientific study," suggests J. Vincent Guss Jr., MDiv, director of pastoral care at Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington, and a member of the Association of Professional Chaplains advocacy commission. "[That's because] the implication is that prayer is characterized as something that it is not — a medical modality, or some sort of complementary/alternative medical technique that if used properly and frequently enough can have a specific positive outcome."

Study examined effects of prayer

A 10-year, $2.4 million study funded by the Templeton Foundation and reported by the American Heart Journal in June showed that about 1,800 heart bypass patients at six medical centers showed no measurable benefit from having their recovery prayed for. Although the long-awaited Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) is considered the most scientific look at the effects of intercessory prayer (prayer offered for patients by others) to date, one of the leaders of the study says it is not definitive.

The authors — affiliated with the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Department of Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School, all in Boston — sought to address whether anecdotal claims of the benefits of intercessory prayer are the result of the prayers themselves or the knowledge or certainty that prayer is being offered. The authors evaluated whether receiving prayer (without patients' knowledge) or certainty of receiving prayer led to uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

Patients either received intercessory prayer after being told they might or might not receive prayer; did not receive prayer after being told they may or may not receive prayer; or received prayer after being told they would receive prayer.

Three groups — Silent Unity, a prayer ministry near St. Louis; St. Paul (MN) Monastery; and Teresian Carmelite in Worcester, MA — were asked to pray for the patients individually. They were given the patients' first names and last initials, and were told they could pray however they chose, so long as the prayers were offered at a set time and for a set length of time, and included the words, "for successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."

Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG, and the primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG.

In the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% of patients who received intercessory prayer and 51% of those who did not. To the admitted surprise of some of the study authors, complications occurred in 59% of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer. One of the possible reasons some patients who were aware of prayers on their behalf suffered more complications, the authors theorize, is because of the expectations they had about the effects of the prayers.

Charles Bethea, MD, a cardiologist at Oklahoma City's Integris Baptist Medical Center and a co-author of the STEP study, says one conclusion that can be drawn from the study's findings "is that the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further."

"Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief," the STEP authors wrote. "Our study focused only on intercessory prayer as provided in this trial and was never intended to and cannot address a large number of religious questions, such as whether God exists, whether God answers intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group work in the same way as prayers from other groups."

Can prayer be studied scientifically?

Guss shares doubts expressed by other experts who say the study highlights the question of whether prayer is an appropriate subject for scientific study.

"I believe in the power of prayer and that healing and prayer are related," he explains. "There is a relationship between restoration of the human body/mind/soul and humanity's expressions of the soul known as 'prayer.'

"However, the wrong questions in the wrong framework of inquiry are being raised when trying to look for scientific, medical outcomes resulting from prayer."

There is a strong body of literature reflecting the value many Americans place on prayer, and the effect they believe their prayers have on themselves or loved ones when they are ill. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) has recognized the necessity of providing for patients' spiritual care in its accredited organizations, and requires health care organizations to provide appropriate professionals, such as clinically trained and certified hospital chaplains, to identify patients' spiritual needs and provide for their care.

However, several studies that have attempted to establish a connection between prayers for another person and actual beneficial results have been questioned as poorly constructed. The authors of the STEP study point out that it is narrowly focused and does not attempt to address the effects of all types of prayer.

Bethea pointed out that such questions as the benefit of a particular type of prayer, whether God exists, if God answers prayers, or whether there was a difference among religions in terms of the results of intercessory prayers were not addressed by the STEP study.

"I find studies indicating that there are success rates from intercessory prayer — whether those offering prayer are known or unknown by the patient — to be interesting but not conclusive, and I also find studies indicating no relationship, or even indicating a lower success rate, to be unsurprising, but again not conclusive, and in both cases, these studies are hopelessly flawed," Guss says. "They reduce prayer to magic instead of mystery. The scientific method cannot be applied to matters of faith. The communication between a human being or a group of human beings and God, or a 'Higher Power' or, in Paul Tillich's words, 'the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Concern' can never be fully understood nor appreciated by the cognitive mind and by studies that are designed by such a mind, but can only be experienced in the spirit of one's own soul."

Guss says the reason prayer or religious faith cannot be studied boils down to a difference between healing and curing.

"Healing and curing are not the same thing," he explains. "These studies look to 'curing,' i.e., the relief of symptoms, the restoration of bodily functions, the elimination of disease, etc. Certainly, curing can be a sign of healing; however, healing is far more basic. It is the restoration of the body/mind/soul in relationship within oneself, with one's community, with whomever or whatever one identifies as 'God,' or one's 'ultimate concern.'"

Healing, on the other hand, involves one's values, vocation, sense of grace, and providence, in addition to physical and mental health, Guss points out; therefore, a patient may be healed without being cured of the medical condition; likewise, the same person might be cured of disease without being healed.

"One set of studies that I believe is unchallenged has to do with the generally 'better health' people enjoy who have an active spiritual life," he continues. "These studies are not very surprising, since the lifestyles of people active in faith groups generally are healthier because of being in a community, sharing specific values that contribute to a sense of well-being. [STEP study leader] Herbert Benson documented this fact in his studies of the 'relaxation factor' involving spiritual disciplines. When one senses and celebrates the meaning of life, through a religious expression of spirituality or some other spiritual expression, health is improved."

What prayer can't do, Guss concludes, is orchestrate desired results.

"Prayers cannot be used as a manipulation of God to affect a certain kind of healing in the precise way for which the person praying intends," he suggests. "Rather, prayer, as communication, has it greatest power in the communication one receives in prayer."


For more information:

  • J. Vincent Guss Jr., MDiv, director of pastoral care, Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington, VA; member, Advocacy Commission, Association of Professional Chaplains. E-mail:
  • Herbert Benson, MD, Mind/Body Medical Institute, 824 Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467. E-mail:
  • Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. 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. Am Heart J 2006; 151:762-764.