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Study highlights difficulty of isolating effect of prayer on patients

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The results of a long-awaited scientific study aimed at measuring the effect of third-party prayer for hospitalized patients not only did not match the expectations of those conducting the study, but also may have raised more questions for researchers than it answered. Among them: Can even the most carefully designed trial measure prayer's effects?

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), published online March 30 by the American Heart Journal, showed no positive effect from the use of third-party intercessory prayer on behalf of patients undergoing a specific type of heart surgery at six medical centers around the United States when compared with a control group who were not prayed for as part of the study.

Another unexpected result: Patients who knew they were being prayed for had somewhat more medical complications than another group who also had received prayer but were uncertain as to whether they had or not. Researchers had expected the reverse outcome.

STEP aimed to provide more accurate results than four previous trials that involved cardiac patients, the authors said. The results of those trials were mixed: Two found a beneficial effect of prayer; two found no benefit. The earlier studies were also criticized for having design flaws, the authors said.

But the study itself is unlikely to satisfy those who question whether the effects of prayer can be measured using conventional scientific testing. They ask: How do you define what constitutes a prayer? Are all forms of prayer equally effective? How do you design a "dose" of prayer that is the same for each patient? And how do you rule out the effects of the patients' own prayers or prayers from others not involved in the study on behalf of the patient?

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