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Study highlights difficulty of isolating effect of prayer on patients

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About 95 percent of all the STEP participants - including a control group that was not prayed for as part of the study - said that they expected friends, relatives, or members of their religious institutions to be praying for them. About two-thirds strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in spiritual healing."

The authors were careful to point out the limited conclusions that could be drawn from their study. "Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief," the 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."

For some involved in exploring the issues of spirituality and health, the new study only confirms their reservations. "Scientific studies are just not capable of showing that prayer works," says Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University's Medical Center.

"I think that prayer absolutely does work and that God answers prayer and that we can continue to pray for our loved ones," Dr. Koenig says. "We should not think that science can answer every question there is."

How the study was designed

The authors of STEP wanted to study the effect of intercessory prayer and whether knowledge that the patient was receiving prayer made a difference. In the study, 1,802 cardiac patients awaiting surgery at six medical centers were divided evenly and randomly into three groups. All the patients were told that they were involved in a clinical trial and gave their permission. Those in Group 1 received intercessory prayer after being told that they may or may not receive prayer. Those in Group 2 did not receive prayer after being told that they may or may not receive prayer (the placebo, or control, group). Group 3 received prayer after being told it would receive prayer.

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