Last month I spoke to students at Rhodes College on “Does Prayer Really Work?”.

I am not a preacher or a pastor but a doctor. Why would a doctor be talking about prayer?

A controversy has brewed in the field of medicine- whether doctors should pray with their patients or encourage patients to pray to improve their health.

Before answering the question whether prayer works, I asked the students.  “ What do you want prayer to do?  Do we want prayer to buy you a new car?” They chuckled and some nodded.

“Do we want prayer to have your sports team or political party win?” Now they grew serious and a few raised their eyebrow.  “Or do you want prayer to heal us?” Silence fell over the room.

So, I begin to answer the last question. “As a doctor and a person who prays, I want prayer to help me and my patients in the healing process. So putting on my scientist hat, I must ask the question –  ‘from a scientific perspective does prayer heal us, just like a new medicine, can prayer cure cancer or relieve arthritis.?’”

‘Are we willing to put prayer to the test of scientific rigor-  repeatability, measurability, and predictability?”  Over the past decade I have been involved in research studies and conferences on the therapeutic effect of prayer, and I shared my experience.

Some research shows that people who go the church and pray more frequently live longer and tend to have lower blood pressure. Seventh Day Adventists, who pray regularly live 9 years longer than others, but they also do not smoke, do not drink alcohol, and eat a vegetarian diet

People who pray tend to use less medical resources. Religious involvement helps people better cope with stressful life circumstances and depression.

People involved in contemplative prayer or meditative prayer have a stronger immune response to an infection. Even Dean Ornish, the famous doctor who has mainstreamed alternative strategies to unclog arteries, encourages spirituality and meditation.

There is growing evidence that more patients are using prayer for healing. In 1993, 25 percent of Americans used prayer in addition to medical treatment to heal themselves and the number has now risen to 35 percent.

Recognizing spiritual needs of people has led to changes in the medical curriculum across the county. Over 50 percent of the medical schools have incorporated spirituality as part of their curriculum and the numbers are growing.

However, an equal number of studies show little or no benefit of prayer. One study from New Mexico among alcoholics in rehab receiving intercessory prayer showed that those being prayed for actually did worse.

Many researchers in the medical community are a bit weary at this marriage of science and spirituality. They ask. “Can healthcare workers be objective and not influence their own beliefs on patients? Will religions use the health benefits of spirituality to convince nonbelievers to change their ways?”

Among all the studies on prayer, none has tested prayer rigorously like a new drug, medical technique or procedure – no well controlled blinded randomized clinical trial has been done.

My lecture raised more questions than answers, yet I told the students, “I am convinced the spiritual domain of people’s lives is an untapped gold mine for healing. Whether it can cure diseases is still scientifically uncertain. My experiences tell me, that prayer makes the patient feel better, and that is what counts.”

The students, mostly religious studies majors, saw a new field spawning. One student came up to me after the class and offered to work on my next sets of experiments on the therapeutic effect of prayer.