Two meta-analyses of noncontact healing studies

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Roe, Chris A ; Sonnex, Charmaine ; Roxburgh, Elizabeth C (2015)

Reviews of empirical work on the efficacy of noncontact healing have found that interceding on behalf of patients through prayer or by adopting various practices that incorporate an intention to heal can have some positive effect upon their wellbeing. However, reviewers have also raised concerns about study quality and the diversity of healing approaches adopted, which makes the findings difficult to interpret. Some of these concerns can be addressed by adopting a standardised approach based on the double-blind randomised controlled clinical trial, and a recent review restricted to such studies has reported a combined effect size of .40 (p < .001). However, the studies in this review involve human participants for whom there can be no guarantee that control patients are not beneficiaries of healing intentions from friends, family or their own religious groups. We proposed to address this by reviewing healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (i.e. to include animal and plant work but also work involving human biological matter such as blood samples or cell cultures), which are less susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects and also allow for more circumscribed outcome measures. Secondly, doubts have been cast concerning the legitimacy of some of the work included in previous reviews so we planned to conduct an updated review that excluded that work. For phase 1, 49 non-whole human studies from 34 papers were eligible for review. The combined effect size weighted by sample size yielded a highly significant r of .258. However the effect sizes in the database were heterogeneous, and outcomes correlated with blind ratings of study quality. When restricted to studies that met minimum quality\ud thresholds, the remaining 22 studies gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of .115. For phase 2, 57\ud whole human studies across 56 papers were eligible for review. When combined, these studies yielded a small effect size of r = .203 that was also significant. This database was also heterogeneous, and outcomes were correlated with methodological quality ratings. However, when restricted to studies that met threshold quality levels the weighted effect size for the 27 surviving studies increased to r = .224. Taken together these results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database gave a smaller mean effect size but this was still significant and suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.
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