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GetWellness Interview: The Healing Power of Prayer

Edited English version
Interview: Vidula Bhoyroo Safft

"We see that people who pray tend to have healthier lifestyles…There are a number of scientific studies that have shown that prayer certainly seems to increase the possibility of healing without the untoward side effects of medications," says Pam Kircher, MD.

Dr. Pam Kircher is a board-certified family and hospice/palliative care physician. She serves as the Medical Director of the Wellness Center at Mercy Medical Center. She has her counseling practice in Durango, Colorado, USA, and is the secretary of the board of the International Association of Near-Death Studies. In 1995, Dr. Kircher published Love is the Link: A Hospice Physician Shares Her Experience of Near-Death and Dying. Since that time, she has spoken locally and nationally about near-death experiences and end-of-life issues.

GetWellness: Prayer has long been an integral part of life for humans, whether it was praying to nature, the sun, moon, stars, deities or a god. So why is science suddenly interested in how prayer may benefit or even heal us? Even the US National Institute of Health (NIH) and the US Congress have been funding studies on prayer.

Dr. Kircher: In the late Middles Ages, those working in the church and in science decided that they would deal with their areas of expertise separately. This caused a big split between science and religion. Before that time, it was a standard practice to incorporate spirituality in the care of a seriously- ill person. The healer not only administered medications, but he or she also prayed. I think in this modern age the interest in prayer started with a study conducted in 1988 at San Francisco General Hospital by Dr. Randolph Byrd. He is a cardiologist who wondered if his patients would have better outcomes if they were being prayed for. To answer that question, he designed a study in his coronary care unit with the consent of the 393 patients who were enrolled in the study. All the patients received conventional medical care. Dr. Byrd put half the patients in the group that was prayed for and half in a control group that was not prayed for by the prayer groups that were participating in the study. The doctors, nurses and patients did not know who was in which group. The results were dramatic and surprised many scientists. He found that those in the group that was prayed for (1) required 1/3 as many antibiotics as the control group; (2) were 1/3 as likely to develop pulmonary edema (a condition where the lungs fill with fluid because the heart cannot pump properly); (3) did not need a tube in the throat to help them breathe (compared to 12 patients in the control group.) This study showed that prayer does makes a difference that is statistically significant!

GetWellness: And in the 1990's there were many more studies.

Dr. Kircher: Actually, Dr. Matthews of Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, has reviewed more than 200 studies linking prayer and health. These studies indicate that people who pray are less likely to fall sick, have a higher chance of recovering from surgery and illness, and are better able to handle their illnesses than people who do not pray. Currently, the NIH (National Institute of Health) is funding two big multi-regional studies on prayer and healing. Many of us doctors feel that the immune system is strengthened by a sense of peace. And we assume that something like prayer, which comforts and give peace, could influence how a person recovers from a disease.

GetWellness: What is prayer?

Dr. Kircher: People who have been writing about prayer are contemplating this question. Some of us believe there are two types of prayer: One is asking for specific outcomes. Another is asking for an outcome that is of the highest good for a particular person or in a particular situation. From my perspective, prayer is about connecting with other people and wishing them profoundly well. For instance, Buddhists do pray, though they do not believe in a God but in universal good and love.

GetWellness: Somehow, it's hard to separate God and prayer.

Dr. Kircher: We human beings have always had a sense that there is something larger than ourselves, that we are part of a greater whole; and that we are more than just our bodies. So a form of prayer was present long before there were specific religions. Religions help us give form to our spiritual yearning, but it's prayer that connects us to this yearning.

GetWellness: Can religion play a role in living a healthier life?

Dr. Kircher: Many studies support that. We see that people who pray tend to have healthier lifestyles. They tend not to smoke, not to drink in excess and not to sleep around. So they tend to lead lives that would make them healthier. A 1995 study from Dartmouth College, following up on 250 patients after open-heart surgery, found that those with religious connections were 12 times less likely to die than those who had no religious connections. At Duke University, researchers assessed 1,000 hospital patients with depression from 1987 to 1989 and concluded that those who had the support of religious practices fared better than those who did not. Some studies show that people who generally have a hostile temperament and are often angry are more prone to heart disease. And every religion talks about love and discourages hostility-another reason why spiritual people tend to be healthier. I also think that they tend to connect with others more, and do not to see themselves as the center of the universe. Many studies demonstrate that people who feel genuinely connected with others have less cancer, less heart disease and are healthier. This is not to say that those with cancer or heart disease have not been living well. These studies talk about statistics and not about individual people. We have to be careful not to create a belief system where people come to blame themselves for being ill. We know that there are many contributing factors to the development of an illness and that many of these factors are beyond our control.

GetWellness: In his studies, Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard University has shown that all types of prayer evoke a relaxation response that lessens stress, quiets the body and promotes healing. How come?

Dr. Kircher: He was the cardiologist who coined the term, the relaxation response. He taught people how to relax and meditate. He was basically interested in lowering his patients' blood pressures. He told them they could use any word and repeat it over and over, like a mantra, and that they would come to associate it with relaxation. To his great amazement he found that these people were inadvertently having powerful religious experiences. It seems that when we relax and become still, we are drawn into an experience of spirituality.

GetWellness: Must the positive effects of prayer be proven in order to accept that it has a place in the healing process?

Dr. Kircher: There has been some criticism from religious leaders saying that this is not the purview of science. They say that prayer works, it does not need to be proven, and some say that doing studies at all is a lack of faith in God. However, I believe that the studies are helpful for scientists because many scientists are not experienced in prayer and they are convinced that science is the answer to all problems. Presently, about 30 medical schools in the United States are offering courses in spirituality and medicine.

GetWellness: Maybe we have to accept that some healing effects of prayer are beyond scientific measurement?

Dr. Kircher: There have been many studies that showed the positive effect of prayer. For example, Dr. John Astin found 27 studies with over 3,000 subjects that showed that prayer has positive effects that could be measured. Some of the prayers were used on non-human subjects like bacteria, yeast, plants, cancer cells, mice, algae, animals, enzymes and red blood cells. So non-human subjects can also feel the positive effects of prayer. These were all changes that could be measured in a scientific way. However, I think there are more subtle changes in a person's life as the result of prayer that may never be measured. Prayer brings a sense of peace and connection that is profound way beyond its health benefits.

GetWellness: To pray, does one have to go to an official praying place, or can it be done anywhere?

Dr. Kircher: I believe prayer is most effective when it comes directly from the heart. It does not matter if we are alone or with others or if we are in a traditional place of worship or in our own homes. It is the prayer of the heart that brings change in a life or in our world.

GetWellness: How would you encourage people to pray?

Dr. Kircher: We need to first learn to be silent and to make the time to sit in stillness. It is helpful to learn to meditate, which is merely focusing and breathing. Not only is it important to spend time in silence, but it is also important not to be constantly busy in every moment. Focusing on "being" instead of "doing" helps people come in contact with deeper parts of themselves. As they begin to know themselves better, they begin to feel their connection with other beings and with the Divine, and they begin to truly wish everyone profoundly well. It is that connection and that sincere well-wishing that constitutes prayer.

GetWellness: How would you like to see the future of prayer in the medical community, in terms of treatment and healing?

Dr. Kircher: I would like for physicians to be aware of the studies on prayer and healing and to share those very positive findings with their patients. I would like for physicians to become more aware of their own spirituality and to recognize that when they combine their love for humanity and the Divine in each of us with the science that they have learned in medical school, only then will they truly be practicing the healing arts.


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