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Doctors explore use of prayer to fight disease

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July 13, 1996
Web posted at: 1:35 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Jeff Levine

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At one time, doctors were thought to have spiritual powers. Today, most physicians depend solely on science to heal patients. But some are combining the two.

Those who use medicine and prayer in their treatments think they can use scientific methods to convince the skeptics.

At California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, doctors hope to harness spiritual powers to aid healing. Among those in the program are breast cancer patients who have undergone medical treatment and have now turned to faith to continue their medical progress.

Mahoney

"I have people praying for me all over the country, and just about every religion possible, but I think it's necessary so you don't think that you're walking this path by yourself," patient Jody Mahoney said.

Doctors such as cancer specialist Elizabeth Targ, who practices at the center, want to tap the power of faith in the war against disease. She already has studied the effects of prayer on a small number of AIDS patients. The prayed-for group repeatedly lived longer, she said.

"Based on the pilot study, there were some encouraging results, so we're doing a much larger study, whether there might really be an effect of these kind of interventions," Targ said.

prayer group

She is not alone in her search. About 70 research specialists convened near Washington this week to discuss ways of integrating religion and health care.

Dr. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University Medical Center plans to research the issue in a study of 60 rheumatoid arthritis patients.

"Physicians are trying to legitimize for themselves, getting re-involved in the area of religion, spirituality and health care," said Dr. Larry Dossey, author of the books "Healing Words" and "Prayer is Good Medicine."

No definitive answer

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Dossey said his experiences have convinced him of prayer's power to intervene in cases where conventional medicine failed. "If you asked me, if you were sick, if I would pray for you, I would tell you I would."

He maintains the effect is not merely psychological. Even rodents heal faster when prayer is used, he said.

"The real interesting question, which is obviously a much more difficult scientific question, is there a transcendent power at work? Does God answer prayer?" Matthews asked.

Matthews thinks the answer is 'yes.' But many doctors, including his colleague, Dr. Brian Doyle, say people need to be realistic when considering the power of prayer.

"It is particularly difficult to quantify. We may not ever have the 'evidence' that shows these things help," he said.

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