NIH-Funded Study Looks to Prayer as Medicine

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - The U.S. government is studying the power of prayer and other types of "distant healing" as treatment for persons who are HIV positive and diagnosed with AIDS, as well as other terminal illnesses.

Dr. Elizabeth Targ, who studies the effects of prayer and other types of distant healing on terminally ill patients, has completed a number of studies on the subject in the last six years.

She found that many patients who were assigned healers felt better than those who weren't, and their chances of living were increased, regardless of their religious beliefs.

As a result of her work, many now believe that such healing techniques should be considered a legitimate form of therapy.

Overcoming Skepticism in the Medical Community

Amid skepticism from many doctors about the ability to test the effects of distant healing, past requests for funding for the National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine were denied.

However, in light of Targ's testing, NIH has reconsidered and given the doctor and her staff at the California Pacific Medical Center funding for two more studies, one for AIDS victims and one for patients with brain tumors.

"Now that we have done this, more and more laboratories around the country are doing this. The NIH now has funds set aside for intercessory prayer and energy medicine," Targ said. "[The government] is getting more and more interested in these subjects.

"People are beginning to realize that this is something that people do, and want to know whether it is helpful or not," Targ said.

Targ's previous studies focused mainly on HIV positive and AIDS patients. In those studies, she and her staff selected healers from around the country and gave them nothing but the name of the patient, some of the patient's vital statistics and a list of symptoms to work with. Patients were not told if they were assigned a healer or not.

The healers chosen for the studies had come from a variety of backgrounds; about half of them specialized in energy healing, a quarter practiced contemplative healing or visualizations, and the other quarter, being religious healers, used intercessory prayer.

Together, they average 17 years of healing experience and typically spend half of their professional time performing some sort of healing therapy.

"We tested healers whom people recommended, because we obviously didn't know if they are any good," Targ said. "We looked all over the country for the people who we knew had the most experience, and we ended up choosing people with very strong reputations as healers and many years of experience behind them."

Targ then matched the healers with volunteer patients, assigning the healers to heal for one hour each day for ten consecutive weeks.

"The patients were being treated by very experienced healers and they got a big dose of healing," Targ said. "They got an hour a day for ten weeks, which is a lot more than most people get, more than if, say, their aunt is praying for them in church.

"There are a lot of studies that have seen positive results and ours is one of the strongest," she said.

Targ found that the patients who received healing each day during the allotted time felt better over time, psychologically and physically.

"We found that the patients with HIV had significantly fewer new AIDS-defining illnesses," Targ said. "That's probably the most important thing - that for whatever reason, their bodies are able to combat these devastating illnesses.

"The place we saw improvement was specifically on psychological measures; they had less depression, less anxiety and less anger at the end of the study," she said.Expanding an Age-Old Idea

Targ said the idea is nothing new and is certainly not out of the ordinary. In fact, some 80,000 nurses in the U.S. have taken courses in energy healing and almost 300,000 people world-wide have taken courses in 'Reiki,' the most widely taught form of distant energy healing.

Targ believes distant healing goes back to the very roots of medicine, since early cultures focused mainly on spiritual healing.

Targ's study has also raised eyebrows in the medical community, and Targ even admits that she hasn't always been a believer that distant healing could have real scientific, proof-positive effects on illnesses.

But, she said, it was a worthwhile study since it is a practice that has been gaining popularity over the past years.

"I think it was sort of outside of the vision of most people. In fact, I didn't really think this was going to work, but it was obvious that there must be something to it since so many people were trying it," she said.

"Within medicine, we like to have some evidence one way or the other on whether this study did or didn't work. We could then tell people to save their money and get involved in other kinds of therapy, like counseling."

"I think what people have wanted is they would like to stay away from hype and just have the question answered as quickly and straightforwardly as possible," she said.

Targ contends that her study has nothing to do with religion and is not meant to test the powers of religion.

"A lot of people have been focusing on questions like 'you know you can't test religion' and things like that," Targ said. "To me it wasn't like that at all. It was just about finding out whether certain types of intervention were possible."

"This is not about religion and is not about faith. It is about healing intention and about consciousness, and that is very much within the realm of science," she said.

Targ said her original interest in the subject originated in the near-epidemic state of AIDS in her hometown of San Francisco.

"[HIV] was practically untreatable and was epidemic in San Francisco where I work," Targ said. "We are finding more and more people who say they are interested in using psychic healing, energy healing and spiritual healing, but we didn't really have any information for them whether or not it would really be effective.

"Since there was nothing available for people with AIDS, and not much research done on distant healing, we thought it would be a worthwhile study," she said.