Prayer in Medicine

February 25, 2010

This topic is a touchy one. I am responding specifically to things that Dr. Mehmet Oz has claimed both on his show and in other public appearances. To begin with, Dr. Oz may be a doctor, but he is a poor scientist. He believes in Reiki (energy healing),  acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine. None of these modalities have ever been proven effective. Dr. Oz claims that prayer has helped patients recover from cardiac procedures, but that is a highly questionable claim.

He introduces the topic by citing the Byrd study. This study, performed in 1988 was one of the first to investigate intercessory prayer (prayer by other people). The author summarized the findings as “these data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to the coronary care unit.” The study makes prayer sound pretty good. However, the actual data show very few statistically signficant findings. For example, the study shows that 2 patients in the prayer group and 7 patients in the control group went into cardiopulmonary arrest. This is a statistically significant difference, but the sample size is extraordinarily small.

Furthermore, the most important comparison point between groups would be the average number of days a patient spent in the intensive care unit. Unfortunately for prayer, there was no difference between groups. This paper also goes on to cite Biblical passages of healing as examples where prayer has been efficacious. The Bible is not a source of scientific literature and should be not cited as such. Dr. Oz completely mischaracterizes this study by saying “the people who got prayed for did better.”

He then goes on to cite even more nonsense. The semi-famous (Time did an article on in it) Korean “Miracle” Fertility study.  Basically, the study demonstrated that prayer increased the fertility of women who were trying to conceive. In reality, the study has been since retracted over allegations of fraud. It seems the authors falsified data. One of the main authors is currently serving prison time for fraud. All of this took place in 2004, yet Dr. Oz is still citing the study as evidence that prayer improves people’s health.

Finally, he brings up the MANTRA II trial. He is vague and simply says “we saw some intriguing findings.” Of course, he neglects to mention that those intriguing findings are summarized in the abstract as “neither masked prayer nor MIT (music, imagery or touch) therapy significantly improved clinical outcome after elective catheterisation or percutaneous coronary intervention (heart procedures).” Given the inconclusive data, this is a fair statement. However, the authors go on to say in the discussion “the MANTRA study project represents a continuing effort to collect systematic, scientifically structured information on widely practised, intangible therapeutic approaches for which we have essentially no mechanistic understanding.” If something is intangible, then why try to measure it? How can you measure it?

Of the above three studies, one was inadequate, one was fradulent, and one found no effect of prayer. The STEP study, on the other hand, showed a very interesting result. The study included 1802 patients compared to Byrd’s 393 patients. “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.” The patients were split into 3 groups. One group received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer, one group did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer, and the third group received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. This final group were significantly more likely to develop complications post-bypass surgery.

Thus, prayer did not have a positive effect on outcomes and furthermore, when patients were certain they were going to receive prayer, they were more likely to have complications. My suspicion is that patients who knew they were being prayed for may not have taken their drug therapy or cardiac rehab as seriously because of the false notion that they were being taken care of. This idea, of false assurance through prayer, needs to be investigated to see how it influences outcomes.


I think Dr. Oz makes obviously false claims about the efficacy of prayer in medicine and I hope no one gets duped by his pseudoscience. After reviewing the current literature, I also question the use of research funds for such studies. The proponents will constantly claim that any inconclusive studies have “intriguing findings” and thus, we should fund more studies. We do not have a proposed mechanism for the benefit of intercessory prayer (no, God is not a mechanism). We are trying to extrapolate the healing power of prayer from historical anecdotes and Biblical stories to patients with serious medical problems that need science-based treatments. This is not science. And most assuredly, Dr. Oz is not a scientist.


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