Can prayer help surgery?

The American Journal of Surgery has published a transcript of a presidential address titled, “Can prayer help surgery?“, and my first thought was that that was absolutely brilliant — some guy was roped into giving a big speech at a convention, and he picked a topic where he could stand up, say “NO,” and sit back down again. If he wanted to wax eloquent, maybe he could add a “Don’t be silly” to his one word address.

But a reader sent me a copy of this paper, and I was wrong. The author spent four pages saying “Yes”. It flies off to cloud cuckoo land in the very first sentence, which compares prayer to “chemotherapy and radiation as adjuvant therapies to surgery, working synergistically to cure cancers”, and then justifies it by pointing out that patients do internet searches for alternatives to surgery, and prayer is a popular result. So, right there in the first paragraph, we get the Argument from Extravagant Assertion and the Argument from Google. It’s not a good start.

This was given at a professional conference, though, so he has to talk about the data, and this is where it starts getting funny. He explains that there sure have been a lot of prayer studies lately, 855 in the past 15 years, and with 46 prospective randomized series in the Cochrane database, which he summarizes succinctly:

Equal healing benefit has been demonstrated whether the prayer is Hindu or Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim.

That’s the way to spin the data into something positive. Unfortunately, this is the happy peak of his foray into actually looking at the data, putting a cheerful universalist twist on the actual results, which he later grudgingly admits are non-existent. When they all show no benefit, that is equal benefit, after all.

Can medical science prove the benefit of prayer to im- prove the result of an operation? I refer you to the latest Cochrane review on this topic.5 This 69-page manuscript is a meta-analysis of 10 prospective randomized studies on intercessory prayer to help the efforts of modern medicine involving over 7,000 patients. Some studies in this meta- analysis showed benefit, while others did not. The conclusion of the authors was that there is no indisputable proof that intercessory prayer lowers surgical complications or improves mortality rates.

That’s the point where he should have stopped and stood down. The science has answered his question, and the answer is no. Unfortunately, this admission is at the top of page two, and he’s going to go on and on. He rants that the studies all basically suck — there can’t be good controls, people would pray for themselves, they didn’t check how devout the prayers were, and of course, that most excellent catch-all refutation, “What happens when the outcome being prayed for is not in accord with the will of God?”

The paper can be summarized so far as an argument that prayer helps because there have been a lot of studies on it, and those studies all show equal benefit, but that benefit is zero, and the studies are all bad science. How can his thesis be saved? Oh, I know: needs more anecdotes.

There is no indisputable proof that prayer can aid in healing. Those who believe do so by faith alone. I’ve seen the power of prayer work together with surgery many times firsthand. An example of this was witnessing my father-in-law miraculously survive an aortic arch dissection, outliving his surgeon by 20 years.

Wait, what? The family prayed, a skilled surgeon saved the patient, so prayer works? And also, from this one story, shouldn’t we just as reasonably conclude that prayer kills surgeons?

The rest of the paper is empty noise about how many patients want to pray and how it makes them feel better emotionally, and how the author is wonderfully open and supportive in praying with his patients. Meandering over the field of anecdote and citing his patients’ wishful thinking does not rescue his premise from the pit of rejection, I’m afraid; the only accurate answer to the question of whether prayer helps in surgery is “No, but people like to think it does.” It certainly doesn’t justify the author’s conclusion.

So, have I answered the question, “Can prayer help surgery?” While there is not conclusive scientific proof that prayer improves surgical outcomes, it certainly can help
relax an anxious preoperative patient and may help enhance the relationship between patient and surgeon. A surgeon must be comfortable with prayer to offer it. Professionalism can be maintained provided the prayer is offered in a non- confrontational manner and reflects the spirituality of the patient. Surgeons who want the best for their patients need to utilize every tool available, and to quote one of my patients, “Prayer is a powerful tool.”

Nah. Let me add a better quote: “The author is a powerful fool.” If he actually escaped unscathed from this address without being splattered by flung rubber chicken and puddin’ cups, my opinion of surgeons will be shattered.

Schroder DM (2011) Presidential Address: Can prayer help surgery? The American Journal of Surgery 201:275-278