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Far-off healing

Many Americans pray for the health of loved ones; others turn to shamans or reiki. Now science is putting these practices to the test.

May 02, 2005|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — On an operating table at a medical center in San Francisco, a breast cancer patient is undergoing reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. But this will be no ordinary surgery. Three thousand miles away, a shamanic healer has been sent the woman's name, a photo and details about the surgery.

For each of the next eight days, the healer will pray 20 minutes for the cancer patient's recovery, without the woman's knowledge. A surgeon has inserted two small fabric tubes into the woman's groin to enable researchers to measure how fast she heals.

The woman is a patient in an extraordinary government-funded study that is seeking to determine whether prayer has the power to heal patients from afar -- a field known as "distant healing." While that term is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, the idea of turning to prayers in their homes, hospitals and houses of worship is not. In recent years, medicine has increasingly shown an interest in investigating the effect of prayer and spirituality on health. A survey of 31,000 adults released last year by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 43% of U.S. adults prayed for their own health, while 24% had others pray for their health.

Some researchers say that is reason enough to study the power of prayer.

"Almost every community in the world has a prayer for the sick, which they practice when a member of their community is ill," said Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a Duke University cardiologist and researcher in the field of distant prayer and healing. "It is a ubiquitous cultural practice, as far as we can tell.... Cultural practices in healthcare frequently have a clue. But understanding that clue, learning how to best use it, requires basic clinical science."

Science has only begun to explore the power of distant healing, and the early results of this research have been inconclusive. In an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2000, researchers reported on 23 studies on various distant healing techniques, including religious, energy and spiritual healing. Thirteen of the 23 studies indicated there are positive effects to distant healing, nine studies found no beneficial effect and one study showed a modest negative effect with the use of distant healing.

The study of distant healing was once the realm of eccentric scientists, but researchers at such prominent institutions as the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina and the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco are involved in the field. And the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has spent $2.2 million on studies of distant healing and intercessory prayer since 2000 -- a small fraction of the agency's annual budget, which totaled $117 million in 2004.

Some people think even that relatively small sum of money is not being well spent.

"You can't use science to prove God," said John T. Chibnall, an associate professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri, who co-wrote a scathing rebuttal of studies on distant prayer published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2001. "We shouldn't waste the money of the government showing that Jesus is 'the man,' " Chibnall said in an interview. "Faith is faith. Science is science. Don't use science to strengthen or diminish belief in God."

While some scientists oppose such studies on religious or scientific grounds, others question whether it is possible to devise a scientifically valid method for measuring something as nebulous as the power of prayer.

What constitutes a "dose" of prayer? How does one define prayer? Is channeling Buddhist intention or reiki energy the same thing as praying to a Judeo-Christian God? And how do you determine whether it was prayer that made a patient better, or something else, such as the placebo effect?

"There are enormous methodological and conceptual problems with the studies of distant prayer," said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University in New York. "Nothing in our understanding of our universe or ourselves suggests how the thoughts of one group of people could influence the physiology of people 3,000 miles away."

For example, said Sloan, unlike clinical trials where researchers can carefully monitor the dose of medicine each patient receives, it is all-but-impossible for scientists to control or quantify the amount of prayer directed toward a patient.

"People all over the world are praying for the sick," said Sloan. "Friends and family are praying for people in any control group. Unless you assume some potency -- that the prayers of certain people are more powerful than others -- you are talking about a tiny amount of prayer against the enormous amount that is already out there. It is like taking a drop of water, putting it in Lake Michigan and trying to detect the effect."

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Weighing the possibilities

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