This week the medical profession hit a new low when a UK National Health Service nurse was suspended for offering to prayer for an elderly female patient at a nursing home in mid-December.
Although the 79-year-old woman was not offended by the prospect, she was a little taken aback and happened to mention it to another nurse. Eventually that casual comment made its way to the North Somerset Primary Care Trust, which suspended the nurse in question, a Mrs. Caroline Petrie, 45, indefinitely without pay.
Today the Daily Telegraph noted that thousands of other NHS staff could be at risk of being similarly reprimanded, for praying for or even offering to pray for their patients.
As Dr. Trevor Stammers, chairman of the Christian Medical Fellowship noted, nurses who make home visits often build up relationships with patients and religion often enters the conversation.
Mrs Petrie, a Baptist, who is being represented by a religious rights lawyer, vehemently denied that she was forcing her faith on anyone - only offering her usual mode of care. “Prayer is a valuable part of the care I give.”
And as Stammers says, Petrie was hardly ramming her beliefs down the patient’s throat. “There is a difference,” he said, “between making an inquiry about prayer and suggesting someone does it.”
Prayer ‘not related to health’
A spokesman for the NHS Trust defended its actions by quoting the Nursing and Midwifery Council Code of conduct, which “makes it clear that nurses ‘must not use [their] professional status to promote causes that are not related to health’.”
I’m not going to get into the debate over religious freedom, because that, to my mind, isn’t the point. The point is actually whether prayer is an effective healing tool.
I beg to differ that prayer does not affect health. For one thing, copious evidence shows that prayer is a potent form of intention that has shown a hugely beneficial effect on outcome when studied in a variety of contexts.
As I recount at length in The Intention Experiment, prayer – on animals, plants and human beings – has been shown in scientific studies to work. Although the big prayer studies at Harvard and Duke University showed no effect of mass prayer on cardiac patients, both had major basic flaws in study design.
According to the Bob Barth of the Office of Prayer Research, these studies only represent a small proportion of prayer research. Of the more than 227 studies investigated by his office, 75 per cent have shown a positive impact.
So, according to the research, there was a good likelihood that Petrie’s positive intention would have had a beneficial effect.
Power of the placebo
Even if there is no actual healing effect of prayer on the receiver. prayer can exert a powerful placebo effect. Medical science admits that the placebo works between 60 to 70 per cent of the time.
A recent analysis of 46,000 heart patients, half of whom were taking a placebo, made the astonishing discovery that patients taking a placebo fared as well as those on the heart drug.
The only factor determining survival seemed to be belief that the therapy will work and a willingness to follow it religiously. Those who stuck to doctor’s orders to take their drug three times a day fared equally well whether they were taking a drug or just a sugar pill. Patients who tended not to survive were those who had been lax with their regimen, regardless of whether they had been given a placebo or an actual drug.
So if the patient thought prayer would help her, it probably would.
Then there is the beneficial effect of prayer on the body. A study at the University of Pavia in Italy and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford showed that saying the rosary had the same effect on the body as reciting a mantra. Both were able to create a ‘striking, powerful, and synchronous increase’ in cardiovascular rhythms when recited six times a minute.
Compared to the proven deleterious effect of most nursing home treatments (for instance, the evidence that most psychotropic drugs given nursing home patients just hasten their decline and death), I’d say that prayer was just about the best medicine Caroline Petrie could offer.