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Massage Today
August, 2006, Vol. 06, Issue 08

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

By Cliff Korn, BS, LMT, NCTMB

Healthy competition benefits everyone. Our entire system works on competition, capitalism and the free enterprise system. One of the only situations I can think of in our history when competition wasn't healthy was the Old West gunfight! Is the shootout coming in the massage industry? Our profession has several "big guns" that appear to swagger through the countryside.

Usually, they are able to "play nice," but if some of the communications I've received recently are any indication, a few of them seem ready to call each other out and swap hot lead!

The "big guns" I am speaking about here are the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and the fledgling "big gun wannabe," the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB). Another "big gun," Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP) seems to have elbows on the swinging doors of the saloon peering out at the OK Corral observing the activity.

Most Massage Today readers first heard about the FSMTB in our July ( and November 2005 ( issues. In the November issue, I wrote,

"At its recent meeting, FSMTB also determined that one of the areas of greatest concern expressed by both state massage therapy boards and massage therapy schools is the examination program administered by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB). From the FSMTB perspective, the continued reliance on this exam program is being questioned for a number of reasons, including: 1. Long-standing problems with delivery of basic services, such as exam registration and approval of continuing education providers; 2. The fact that state boards have had no direct input into the design and administration of this examination program, nor any role in the policy making process of NCBTMB; and 3. Inconsistencies between the eligibility requirements set by NCB for this exam and the specific curriculum standards upheld in each state where massage therapy is regulated. FSMTB stated these are not only logistical problems; they also might present issues of legal exposure for the state boards. As a potential solution, the FSMTB has been researching the establishment of its own national licensing examination."

The NCBTMB, of course, has long been known for its certification program and associated entrance-level certification examination, which many states also have chosen to utilize as a licensing examination. In a letter to "Members of the Massage Therapy and Bodywork Community" and to massage therapy state regulatory boards, the NCBTMB expressed dismay that the FSMTB actually went ahead with plans for a licensing exam. (The two organizations had discussed ways to collaborate, but those discussions obviously weren't of sufficient substance to dissuade the FSMTB from its initial idea.) NCBTMB's letter states, "The NCBTMB's experience to date has been a series of mixed messages from FSMTB, which first challenged the validity of NCBTMB's examinations and then sought to transfer ownership of the these examinations to their control." The negativity continues in a recent communiqué from the FSMTB that raises the following questions and concerns:

  • Uniform standards for the profession will be more challenging to develop and will further divide the profession by creation of another entry-level exam.
  • The potential for reciprocity will be diluted with multiple entry-level exams: reciprocity was a major impetus for the original call to form an organization of state boards.
  • The financial stability and future funding mechanism of the FSMTB seeking to develop and administer a national exam must be fully understood.
  • Questions arise related to infrastructure and resources for a new organization looking to administer a national exam over a period of time.
  • The development of a serious threat to currently nationally certified practitioners by dilution of a single national certification and examination program.

The AMTA has chosen to insert itself into the FSMTB/NCBTMB squabble by, on several occasions, supporting the NCBTMB position through its own statements. In a letter to its members, AMTA recently wrote, "AMTA supports one set of massage therapy exams for the profession, those created and administered by the NCBTMB."

As the NCBTMB prepares itself to "gun down" the upstart FSMTB, with AMTA handing over extra ammunition, I wonder why. To me, other than the obvious issues of garnering or retaining cash flow, this is a tempest in a teapot. All of the involved organizations make one-sided statements without explanation, assuming readers will just accept the statements as truth. I have yet to hear an explanation from any AMTA source that would explain why one set of exams is better for the profession than two, 12 or 112. The AMTA also has given no reason for choosing why the exams created and administered by NCBTMB are any better than those from any other test developer. One wonders why it would disenfranchise another organization's attempt to develop something "new and improved," and who might actually be able to do the job better! The NCBTMB gives no rationale for how a purposely developed licensing exam would "further divide the profession," any more than it is divided by multiple professional associations or multiple educational accreditation organizations. The board provides no examples of how reciprocity would be adversely affected by multiple entry-level exams any more than it is by multiple massage school diplomas. As I see it, this is just turf protection and spin.

In my world, competition is a good thing. I'm a better massage therapist because there are others in my community also striving to be the best they can be. I think the AMTA and ABMP are better professional associations than they would otherwise be if they were not both there to offer alternative choices. I think the NCBTMB will become a more responsible certification provider if there is another organization offering an alternative entry-level examination. The fact is that standards are the key to effective assimilation of multiple choices in almost any situation. It is accepted accreditation standards that allow a degree from thousands of colleges/universities to be accepted as a prerequisite for graduate education. As long as similar standards are applied to the FSMTB's new exam as to the NCETMB, then there should be no noticeable difference to the entry level therapist - other than it might be easier to schedule an exam after graduation.

But other than giving my opinion on this issue, I'm laying low and keeping my head down in case bullets start to fly!

Thanks for listening.

Massage Today encourages letters to the editor to discuss matters related to the publication's content. Letters may be published in a future issue or online. Please send all correspondence by e-mail to , or by regular mail to:

Massage Today
P.O. Box 4139
Huntington Beach, CA 92605

Former editor of Massage Today, Cliff is owner of Windham Health Center Neuromuscular Therapy LLC. He is nationally certified in therapeutic massage & bodywork and is licensed as a massage therapist by the states of New Hampshire and Florida. Cliff is a member of the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners; a professional member and past president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association; a certified member of the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, Inc.; and a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.


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