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Parapsychology articles and news

Research of distant healing

I’ve found an article, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, by John A. Astin, PhD; Elaine Harkness, BSc; and Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, in 2000. The article is titled ‘The Efficacy of “Distant Healing”: A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials’ and can be downloaded in PDF from here.

The purpose of the study was “To conduct a systematic review of the available data on the efficacy of any form of “distant healing” (prayer, mental healing, Therapeutic Touch, or spiritual healing) as treatment for any medical condition.”

The study verified 23 trials involving 2774 patients. “Of the trials, 5 examined prayer as the distant healing intervention, 11 assessed noncontact Therapeutic Touch, and 7 examined other forms of distant healing.”

Now, although the studies didn’t show a statistically significant result (for the overall 23 studies), “13 (57%) yielded statistically significant treatment effects” and the researchers advise further study. Prayer and distant healing studies showed almost equal positive and negative findings, while majority of Therapeutic Touch (7 of 11) showed “a significant treatment effect”.

I’m not a scientist and can’t understand all the article is saying but it doesn’t seem to say that the distant or closing healing techniques don’t seem to work. On the other hand, it does get some positive results (although not strong statistically) and proposes to continue the study of healing efficacy.

I will be writing some more personal thoughts on researching healing later.





  1. While I am not a scientist or professional researcher, I do find myself reading a lot of studies on various subjects, so perhaps I can shed some light on the subject. “Statistically Significant” results are basically results that vary from the norm. For example, we know that if you flip a coin 1000 times, you will get approximately half of the tosses coming up heads, and half coming up tails, with a variance of perhaps 2 or 3%. (note: I do not know the actual variance allowed for this example, I just used it for illustrative purposes)

    A “statistically significant” result, in this instance might be 55% heads, and 45% tails, a 5% variance instead of 2 or 3%. So in the case of distant healing, the significant result is that the patient improved either without standard treatment (unlikely) or that the patient improved at a faster rate than is considered normal.

    Now I’m going to download the paper, and actually read it. Who knows, I might even have something statistically significant to contribute ;-)

    Cheers, Marc

  2. I just did a quick skim of the article and didn’t see a direct answer to your question — but this doesn’t surprise me. Ethically studies such as these are done on the basis of a supplement to conventional treatment rather than being done instead of (even a strong supporter of alternative techniques should have ethical qualms about leaving the placebo group completely untreated).

    The effect sizes were generally small, indicating that overall using distant healing techniques in addition to conventional treatment improved the outcome *slightly* over just using the conventional treatment. In some cases, however, they appeared to have the opposite effect (perhaps conflicting somehow with the conventional treatment, but I would be suspicious of an experimenter effect).

  3. I would be curious to know how these methods work compared to “standard” medical practices. That is, answering not whether the methods work at all, but whether they work better or worse than the usual treatment options.

    For instance, maybe prayer only works 50% of the time. That isn’t a big deal if the standard treatment works 80% of the time, but is a significant finding (statistical or otherwise) if the standard treatment only works 25% of the time.

    Guess I’ll read the full study…