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Faith & Prayer

A journal dedicated to allied health 
professional practice and education Vol. 2 No. 1     
ISSN 1540-580X 
A Peer Reviewed Publication of the 
College of Allied Health & Nursing 
at Nova Southeastern University
Observations on Prayer as a Viable Treatment Intervention: 
A Brief Review for Healthcare Providers

Matthew R. Kutz, PhD, M.Ed., ATC.
Palm Beach Atlantic University
West Palm Beach, FL  

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be directed to:
Matthew R. Kutz, PhD, M.Ed., ATC
Palm Beach Atlantic University
West Palm Beach, FL

Kutz, M. Observations on prayer as a viable treatment intervention: A brief review for healthcare provider. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. January 2004. Volume 2 Number 1.
Keywords: Prayer, illness, treatment, faith, faith healing


Prayer continues to gain much notoriety and attention as a medical intervention.  There are many places now advocating spirituality as a form of health care.  As clinical practices seek to enhance the quality of care given, attention should be given to the implementation of prayer into clinical practice.  Family physicians have begun dialogue over how to take a spiritual history or inventory of their patients in order to assist in recovery and prevention if illness and disease.1 Larimore1 reports that 99% of surveyed family physicians (n=296) believe that religious beliefs can heal, 75% believe other people’s prayers (i.e., intercessory prayer) can promote healing. 

Based on his own clinical practice and dialogue with other family physicians Larimore suggests that “infrequent religious attendance or “poverty of personal faith” should be regarded as a risk factor that is nearly equivalent to tobacco and alcohol abuse.1  Graber and Johnson2 state “with a growing emphasis on holistic healthcare – serving the whole person rather than the disease entity alone – spirituality is reemerging as a relevant factor in serving the sick and disabled."

The current literature is replete with empirical studies and theoretical papers on the implications of prayer in health care.  A recent ProQuest® journal search turned out over 250 peer-reviewed references related to prayer and medicine published between 1999 and 2002 (Table 1).  Many of these studies and others report a significant positive correlation between prayer and health that cannot be ignored or placed on the proverbial “shelf” until further research is completed.


Table 1. Articles published regarding prayer.

A Sample Recent Titles Published on Prayer in Healthcare Sample of Journals Containing Titles on Prayer in Health Care
1.   Intercessory prayer and patient outcomes in coronary care units
2.   The effects of spirituality on health and healing: 
         A critical review for athletic trainers
3.   Faith, Prayer, and Health Outcomes in Elderly Native Americans
4.   Prayer and Health Outcomes in Church Members
5.   Prayer and Health Outcomes in Church Lay Leaders
6.   Prayer: An Ancient Healing Practice Becomes New Again
7.   Invoking Spirituality in Medical Care
8.   Providing Basic Spiritual Care for Patients: 
        Should it be the Exclusive Domain of Pastoral Professionals

1.  The British Medical Journal
2.  American Family Physician
3.  Journal of Athletic Training
4.  Clinical Nursing Research
5.  Western Journal of Nursing Research
6.  The Journal of Parapsychology
7.  Holistic Nurse Practitioner
8.  American Journal of Public Health


Issues in General Health
For better or worse, the influence of complementary and alternative medicine guru’s like Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Andrew Weil, M.D. have brought much attention to the spiritual aspects of health.  “Somebody” is listening because main stream medical science thinks prayer and meditation is worth looking into, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has commissioned or is currently conducting several research studies on the affects of meditation, a specific type of prayer, on health (Table 2).


Table 2. Funded research on meditation.

Current NIH Funded Research Studies8
Basic Mechanisms of Meditation and Cardiovascular Disease in Older Blacks 
Basic Mechanisms of Meditation and Cardiovascular Disease in Older Black Woman
Effects of Meditation on Mechanism of Coronary Heart Disease
Meditation-based Treatment for Binge Eating Disorders 


As indicated by NIH,8  meditation may have a beneficial role in the lives of certain populations or cultures.  Paloma 3 reports in 1948 90% of people polled said “yes”, to the question, “Do you ever pray?”  Not surprisingly that answer has not declined much.  In 1978 89% said yes, in 1988 it was 88% and in 1991 80% of those surveyed pray weekly and 57% pray daily.  These statistics may indicate that a majority of people have demonstrated a faith where prayer is an important element in regular life.  Prayer has been demonstrated to promote significant feelings of calm, relief, rest and other feelings associated with well-being, healing and recovery.4

In 2001, the British Medical Journal reported a randomized study of the effects of prayer on patients with bloodstream infections which demonstrated that the patients who received prayer had a statistically significant shorter hospital stay and a more rapid recovery (shorter duration of fever) than the group who did not receive prayer.5

It has been reported that 82% of Americans believe prayer can cure serious illness and that 64% want their physicians to pray with them.6  Also giving support to the notion that religion is key in healing is that historically hospitals have been founded by religious institutions, churches usually. In fact a majority of hospitals have some sort of religious service and pastoral care department operating along side of conventional medical practice.  It is not uncommon to find phrases similar to “to continue the healing ministry of Jesus Christ,” such as is found in the mission statement of St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio.

One of the most poignant and commonly sited studies on the intervention of prayer is Byrd 7 who examined via a double-blind randomized design were neither the health care providers nor the patients knew who was being prayed for, only the people assigned to pray knew the names of patients and nothing else. 

Byrd’s study concluded that intercessory prayer differed significantly in six variables at discharge: 1) less intubation and ventilation assistance, 2) fewer antibiotics, 3) fewer diuretics, 4) fewer cardiopulmonary arrests, 5) fewer episodes of congestive heart failure, and 6) fewer cases of pneumonia. Of particular interest is that Byrd actually mentioned who was praying and to whom they were praying and what was prayed, something most of the other studies leave out.  Byrd methodologies mention that the people offering the prayers were “committed Christians” and offered prayers to the God of the Bible.  This brings to light a potential controversy that certain individuals have more or less “divine” favor and/or that a certain God is more involved, interested or concerned in the lives of humans than others.7

Clinical Implications
In light of risking negligence as health care providers become increasingly aware of the outcomes of prayer in our different clinical settings and as more research is completed it will become important that integration of prayer occur.  If further findings continue to suggest a correlation between prayer (and other spiritual practices) and health and recovery our patients need to be made aware of the potential benefit.  Needless to say, prayer is important to people and consideration of individuals religious beliefs and convictions need to be honored by clinicians and certainly not minimized or mocked.

Rhetorical Questions
Is it the responsibility of the clinician to let the patient know about prayer?  Based on data are the outcomes of prayer strong enough to indicate prayer as a “mainstream” or even complimentary medical intervention?  If it is the general consensus that prayer does work do all the parameters and variables (i.e., the how to and whys) need to be fully understood before prayer is implemented?  Should the clinician be obligated to perform the prayer on the patient or is this something that needs to be referred to a “specialist”, and if so can it or should it be reimbursable by insurance companies?  Depending on the consensus of the answers to these questions, then does the faith of the clinician become an issue and is similarity of faith between clinician and patient and issue?  Many questions remain concerning prayer and health outcomes, what at least appears to be understood is that prayer does indeed have correlation with health, healing and recovery.

Theoretical and subjective data contribute substantially to the current literature and add significant contributions to the study and development of prayer as an intervention.  The impact of spiritual practices and discipline such as prayer are undeniable.  Obviously issues of faith and beliefs and how to implement those, such as through prayer, is a topic wrought with passion.   In light of the current literature on prayer in healthcare it can be deemed irresponsible to dismiss prayer wholesale as a viable intervention.

Critical Questions for Further Investigation
While the current literature clearly indicates a healthy correlation between prayer and health benefits several other questions must be asked.  The current research is asking many interesting questions about prayer, but a brief review of the literature indicates that some important questions are still missing.

Given the fervency and conviction associated with different religious beliefs are there any correlations between intensity of faith on the part of the individuals offering the prayers and/or individuals receiving the prayer?  Is there any correlation between personal faith convictions and prayer outcomes for individuals who are of different faiths?  Does the intensity and frequency of  the prayer(s) offered affect the outcomes? 

A common Christians belief is that “the fervent prayers of the righteous avail much”. Does the specific religion of an individual (i.e., the deity being prayed to) affect the outcomes of prayer and does the specific religion of the patients receiving the prayer affect the outcomes.  Byrd’s study 7 seems to indicate that who is praying (i.e., the faith and convictions of the prayer) impact the outcome of the prayer and may also suggest that to Whom the prayer is offered also affects the outcome of the prayer.  One final question is of the different types of prayer (Table 3) are there certain types that have a greater clinical benefit or higher probability of a beneficial outcome?


TABLE 3. Specific type of prayer

1.       Petition: asking something for yourself
2.       Intercession: Asking something for others
3.       Confession: expressing repentance or sorrow for a wrong doing
4.       Lamentation: crying out in distress asking for vindication
5.       Adoration: giving honor or praise to God
6.       Invocation: summoning or asking for the presence of God to manifest
7.       Thanksgiving: offering gratitude to God for His actions 


1.  Larimore, W. L. Providing Basic Spiritual Care for Patients: Should it be the Exclusive domain of pastoral Professionals?  American Family Physician. 2001, 63(1) 36
2. Graber, D.R., & Johnson, J.A. Spirituality and Healthcare Organizations. Journal of Healthcare Management. 2001; 46(1) 39-50
3. Poloma, M. The effects of Prayer on Mental Well-being.  Second Opinion. 1993; 18(3): 37-51
4. Taylor, E. J., & Outlaw, F.H.  Use of prayer among persons with cancer. Holistic Nurse Practitioner. 2002; 16(3): 46-60.
5. Leibovici, L. (2001).  Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: Randomized controlled trial. British Medical Journal. Dec 2001, 323:22-29 1450-1451
6. Ameling, A. Prayer: An ancient healing practice becomes new again. Holistic Nursing Practice. 2000; 14(3) 40-48
7. Byrd, Randolph. Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population. Southern Medical Journal.1988; 81(7) 826-829.
8. National Institutes of Health. Web Site.*&proxyreload=1&x=9&y=5
9. Foster, R. Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco. 1992.


Health Benefits of Prayer
Armstrong Williams

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him. (James 5:14)

Prayer heals. So say thousands of Americans who use prayer to improve their health. According to a study by Dr. Anne McCaffrey of the Harvard Medical School, one-third of Americans use prayer to facilitate physical healing. Sixty-nine percent of the 2,000 people surveyed said prayer greatly improved their health.

Additional studies have linked prayer to positive health outcomes with high blood pressure, asthma, heart attacks, headaches and anxiety. "It's not a fringe thing," says McCaffrey. "I think very mainstream Americans are using prayer in their daily lives."


Though Western medicine, with its focus on scientifically quantifiable results, tends to eschew the links between prayer and healing, the Old and New Testament have long espoused the healing power of prayer. A prayer for the sick is a regular part of Catholic and Jewish religious services. Members of Muslim congregations often conclude daily services by asking the imam to offer a special prayer for those who are sick.

'This is the most ancient, widely practiced therapy on the face of the earth," said Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a professor of medicine and cardiology at Duke University Medical Center

Patients describing the benefits of prayer often talk about how it provides a sense of well-being. Makes sense. When we accept God, we achieve a spirituality that connects us to the significance of life and provides an immutable foundation from which to judge right and wrong.

This foundation is not transient like the vain and materialistic trappings of life. It is eternal. Even during the worst hardships, when the other things in our lives seem to fall apart, we can still find peace in the eternal love of God.

People who understand this will feel God's love reflected back. That is to say, a person cannot love God without loving himself. How could a belief system designed to bring about such a sense of peace not have positive general health benefits?

Of course, none of this means that spiritual health is a substitute for traditional medicine, or that prayer will ensure physical well-being. After all, many saints suffered from a laundry list of physical maladies. We are only human.

But what's telling about the Harvard study is that it reveals just how critical a component prayer is in most Americans' lives. Doctors cannot and should not ignore that. Traditional medicine needs to explore this critical component of patients' lives to better understand their response to illness and recovery. "Doctors need to realize that we don't have the market on what people are doing to make themselves feel better," says McCaffrey.

Of course, it is difficult to test the effects of prayer. You cannot reduce spirituality to a quantifiable figure. You can't measure its effects in a beaker. Perhaps that's why physicians are loath to discuss the matter with patients. But the fact that prayer is a critical component in most people's lives tells us that spirituality – when combined with traditional medicine – should be embraced as an integral part of the health-care process.


Can Prayer Really Heal?

 Publisher: Parade Magazine
By: Dianne Hales

Last year, Ardie Kissinger of Bloomsburg, Pa., a shift manager at a nuclear power plant, suffered two severe heart attacks. "I prayed. My family prayed.  I was overwhelmed by the number of people who prayed for me," says Kissinger, 49, a devout Baptist. "And I believe God answered those prayers. After two life threatening attacks, I feel great-as if I don't have a heart condition." For the next five years, researchers at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., will monitor Kissinger to see whether his faith and prayers do indeed have a measurable impact on his long-term recovery.

This study, one of hundreds of scientific investigations into faith and healing, represents a new frontier for medical research. With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), investigators at Johns Hopkins are studying a group of women with breast cancer who say a meditative prayer twice daily. At the University of Pennsylvania, neuroscientists are documenting changes in brain scans of meditating Tibetan Buddhists and praying nuns. At Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis,patients are receiving a "prayer intervention" before and after bypass surgery.

"We are not out to prove that a deity exists," says Prof. Diane Becker of Johns Hopkins, recipient of two NIH grants for research on prayer. "We are trying to see whether prayer has meaning to people that translates into biology and affects a disease process."

A decade ago, this premise would have been derided as scientific heresy. "NIH wouldn't have reviewed a protocol with the word `prayer' in the title," says Dr. Mitchell Krucoff of Duke University, director of one of the largest randomized prayer studies. "When we started in the 1990s, we were afraid of being run out of town for practicing voodoo medicine." Medical acceptance has grown along with solid scientific data on prayer's impact, says Dr. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University, author of The Faith Factor. He estimates that about 75% of studies of spirituality have confirmed health benefits.  "If prayer were available in pill form, no pharmacy could stock enough of it," he says.

Dozens of studies have shown that individuals who pray regularly and attend religious services stay healthier and live longer than those who rarely or never do -- even when age, health, habits, demographics and other factors are considered. A six-year Duke University study of 4000 men and women of various faiths, all over 64, found that the relative risk of dying was 46% lower for those who frequently attended religious services.

Prayer -- whether for oneself (petitionary prayer) or others (intercessory prayer}-- affects the quality, if not the quantity, of life, says Dr. Harold Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health: "It boosts morale, lowers agitation, loneliness and life dissatisfaction and enhances the ability to cope in men, women, the elderly, the young, the healthy and the sick."

Among other groundbreaking findings in petitionary prayer research:

o   Another Duke study of the same group of 4000 people over 64, found that those who prayed regularly had significantly lower blood pressure than the less religious. A third study showed that those who attended religious services had healthier immune systems than those who did not.

o   In a study at Dartmouth Medical Center, one of the best predictors of survival among 232 heart surgery patients was the degree to which they drew comfort and strength from religious faith and prayer.

o   According to University of Miami research, AIDS patients who became loner term survivors were more likely to be those involved in religious practices and engaged in volunteer work.

o   In studies at several medical centers, prayer and faith have been shown to speed recovery from depression, alcoholism, hip surgery, drug addiction, stroke,rheumatoid arthritis, heart attacks and bypass surgery.

"Nobody knows what really happens in human beings when they pray or when you pray for them in terms of the physiological mechanisms involved," says Duke's Dr. Krucoff. "But it's not uncommon to be clueless about mechanisms. We cannot explain why beta-blockers reduce death rates after a heart attack either, but we know that they do."

Some scientists speculate that prayer may foster a state of peace and calm that could lead to beneficial changes in the cardiovascular and immune systems. Using sophisticated brain-imaging techniques. Dr. Andy Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, author of Why God Won't Go Away, has documented changes in blood flow in particular regions of the brain during prayer and meditation. 'This could be the link between religion and health benefits such as lower blood pressure,slower heart rates, decreased anxiety and an enhanced sense of well-being," he says.

To some physicians, the evidence for the power of prayer is far too compelling to ignore. "I decided that not using prayer on behalf of my patients was the equivalent of withholding a needed medication or surgical procedure;' says Dr. Larry Dossey, a former internist who is the author of Healing Words and Prayer Is Good Medicine. "I prayed for my patients daily."

At nine medical centers around the country, 750 patients with potentially life-threatening heart problems participated in the MANTRA project, a recently concluded randomized trial of intercessory prayer, or distant healing. The names of half of the patients were given to groups including Carmelite nuns, Buddhist monks, Sufi Muslims and Evangelical congregations -who prayed for their recovery.

"In the next few months we'll look at the frequency of rehospitalizations and complications;' says Dr. Krucoff, the project's director. "We'll see if being prayed for had an impact." In a pilot study, prayer recipients had 50% to 100% fewer complications.

Findings from other intercessory prayer investigations have been mixed. In two controversial studies in San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo., patients in coronary care units who were prayed for by strangers had lower complication rates. But a similar study at the Mayo Clinic found "no significant benefits" on medical outcomes. Still, a review of 23 studies of intercessory prayer involving 2774 patients, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found a positive effect in 57% and concluded that "the evidence thus far merits further study."

Skeptics remain dubious. "The premise behind distant healing isn't scientific," says John Chibnall, a psychologist at St. Louis University. "Studies cannot be designed in a scientific way." Even writers on spirituality, such as Sophy Burnham, author of 77te Path of Prayer, concede that science may never prove that prayer can heal others. But she adds, "That doesn't mean that people shouldn't take advantage of this wonderful tool that's right at their fingertips."

Americans are doing just that. In various polls, 90% say they pray; 80% believe prayers can heal. Khalita Jones. 27, of Lexington. N.C., is one of them. Since she was 4, a chronic, life-threatening bone marrow disease repeatedly has brought her near death. Every time, Jones has bounced back -- astounding her doctors. "I couldn't get through a day without prayer;' says Jones, who founded He Cares, a spirituality-based organization for the chronically ill. "I've no doubt that it's the reason I'm as healthy as I am despite having a potentially fatal disease."

Will science ever be able to prove this? "While I personally believe that God heals people in supernatural ways, I don't think science can shape a study to prove it,"says Dr. Koenig. "But we now know enough, based on solid research, to say that prayer, much like exercise and diet, has a connection with better health."