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    California Pacific Currents 2001

    Currents 2001 Table of Contents | Currents Main Page

    Distant Healing: Will It Improve the Outcomes of Patients with AIDS and Brain Tumors?

    Elisabeth Targ, MD

    Research funds from federal agencies are now being directed into studies designed to understand the scientific merit of complementary and alternative medical treatments. For example, during 2000, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded $54 million to fund 125 research grants related to complementary and alternative medicine. Additionally, they requested proposals related to distant healing and prayer. This reflects increased interest among the scientific community—as well as federal agencies—to learn if patients who are ill can be helped by energy directed towards them by healers, even without their knowledge.

    California Pacific Medical Center was the recipient of several of these NIH grants, including two for distant healing studies. The principal investigator for both these studies is Elisabeth Targ, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at California Pacific. Dr. Targ has been studying distant healing for more than six years and is one of the country's leading researchers in this area.

    What Is Distant Healing?
    “Distant healing is any purely mental effort undertaken by one person with the intention of improving the physical or emotional well-being of another,” explains Dr. Targ. “Various forms of distant healing are widely practiced around the world, including prayer and psychic healing; and well-controlled trials have demonstrated the mental effects of distant healing on humans, animals, and other biological systems. However, not enough research has been conducted to determine whether such activities have clinical effects independent of psychological effects. I want to further the research in that area.”

    Work with AIDS Patients Demonstrates Excellent Results
    Dr. Targ's successful outcomes from two previous studies of distant healing among patients with AIDS helped her secure a three-year NIH grant to replicate her results. Her previous work, a randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in patients with advanced AIDS, was published in The Western Journal of Medicine in 1998. In that study, the group that received distant healing experienced significantly fewer outpatient encounters, fewer hospitalizations and days of hospitalization, fewer AIDS-defining diseases, and a significantly lower illness severity level than the control group. Dr. Targ believes that distant healing was responsible for the improved health outcomes, as the study adjusted for most other variables, such as age, sex, ethnicity, and duration of HIV infection. However, she also believes that more research must be done.

    Consequently, Dr. Targ and co-investigator Donald Abrams, MD, an AIDS specialist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, are now engaged in an NIH-funded study of 150 AIDS patients titled “Comparison of Nurses versus Professional Healers in Accomplishing Remote Healing for Persons with AIDS.” One-hundred and fifty patients, over the course of 10 months, will be randomly assigned to either:

    • A control group;

    • A group treated by self-identified healers of all types (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, secular, etc.); or

    • A group treated by RNs who have never practiced distant healing but wish to be involved in the study.
    Explains Dr. Targ: “We're trying to determine if individuals untrained as healers can have a positive influence. Professional healers have a great deal of training, and many people think they also have an inborn gift. We want to know if healing is an ability that others can develop.”

    The study will not be completed until July 2003. To be included, participants must be HIV positive, between the ages of 18 and 65 years, and on a stable antiretroviral regimen. They must also speak English and have a history of a T-cell count less than 200. Anyone interested should contact Paul Couey at 415.502.5705.

    Glioblastoma Patients: Greatly in Need of New Interventions
    Dr. Targ was also awarded a four-year NIH grant to study the effect of distant healing on patients with glioblastoma, an extremely serious brain tumor. The study officially started in September 2000, with two co-investigators from UCSF— Susan Chang, MD, a neuro-oncologist, and Andrew Freinkel, MD, a psychiatrist and neurologist. There will be 75 patients in the treatment group and 75 in the control group.

    Dr. Targ chose this area of research because “I was interested in the ‘generalizablity' of the results of my AIDS studies. Also, I wanted to study a condition in great need of new interventions. Most people with glioblastomas die within a year, whether or not they have surgery and radiotherapy. It's a pretty grim diagnosis.”

    The Glioblastoma Study Protocol
    • Patients must start treatment within five weeks of diagnosis of glioblastoma.

    • Patients are randomly assigned to the healing or control group. Both groups undergo conventional medical treatment: surgery and radiotherapy.

    • Photos of the patients in the healing group are sent sequentially to 10 different healers, each one of whom will pray for the patient for six hours over two weeks. Each patient receives a total of 20 weeks of healing.

    • The only contact that researchers have with patients after initial selection is to ask them which group they thought they were in.

    • Patients are enrolled over the course of two years, and each patient is followed for at least one year. Patients are enrolled as they present to the clinic, which means it takes up to two years to recruit enough patients to determine if their survival and functional status are influenced by the distant healing.
    “I have no idea what the outcomes of this study will be,” says Dr. Targ. “My goal is simply to pave the way for free and fair scientific discourse on subjects that have previously been considered nonrational. It's our responsibility as scientists and physicians to speak based on fact, not opinion. If there's a benefit to distant healing, physicians and patients should consider it along with all the other proven treatments for disease.”