Friday, March 31, 2006

Studying Prayer

There was a news item this morning regarding research on the health benefits of intercessory prayer. The best discussion, I think, was this story in the International Herald Tribune. You can do a search and read many other reports on this study.

This is of interest to me, of course. It’s certainly of professional interest. It’s also of personal interest, in that a previous study, using different measures, but also involving cardiac patients, was done in the central hospital of my system, and I was peripherally involved. The abstract is still available on line here.

The study today seemed to show, at best, no significant results of the intercessory prayer, and perhaps harm for some patients. Our study seemed to show some small, but measurable benefit for patients. Since the studies didn’t use the same measures or comparable patient pools, they’re not directly comparable.

But both raise the question: what good is research into prayer and/or into religious practice? There have been these and other studies into whether intentional, third-party intercessory prayer made a measurable difference. Some were better than others, but all were controversial. There have been studies looking at correlation between religious practice and aspects of health, comparing, for example, blood pressure or depression among people regular in worship and those who did not attend worship. These have not raised as many questions as the prayer studies (some of which were weird by anybody’s standards), and they have shown many positive health outcomes that correlate with a committed religious life; but they have still had their critics.

The primary criticism, of course, is that there is no way to identify, much less measure, the direct, specific mechanism that caused any change. That’s especially true of the prayer studies, and complicated by the fact that there’s no way to screen for any third-party, intercessory prayer that’s not part of the study, nor for any prayers the patient himself or herself might say. The critics of the correlation studies want to make a similar criticism, as if a disciplined life style and a good support network were neitherreason enough for the good results, nor sufficiently spiritual or religious.

I have followed these studies for years. I have met and heard Harold Koenig, MD, of Duke, and the late David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (now the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality). Their take on research into the health and spirituality wasn’t dependent either on proving the actions of God or on determining a specific mechanism by which prayer caused change. Rather, their point was that spirituality and religion were important aspects of the lives of most patients, and aspects that may affect their health practices and beliefs. As such, they felt that those in health care should take religion and spirituality of patients seriously, and should perhaps learn enough about each patient’s faith to encourage the patient in maintaining good practices, and utilizing appropriate support. They might even learn enough to make an appropriate referral, whether to the patient’s own minister or to a clinical chaplain.

While I am interested in research like that reported today, I take it with a pinch of salt. Having been involved in prayer research, and in more traditional research efforts in hospitals, I’m quite aware of the limitations and the problems. On the other hand, if we can continue to encourage professionals in health care to take seriously the faith lives of their patients, and to consider how they might support healthy faith practices, I think we’ll be ahead, and our patients will be better served.

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