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Massage Today
February, 2014, Vol. 14, Issue 02

Is Hours and Hours of Education Really the Answer?

By Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB

A small but influential group of people in our field have wrapped their brains around the idea that we must increase the number of entry-level education hours to elevate our standing with the public and get massage therapy incorporated into mainstream healthcare. This is only a theory and one that is not substantiated by evidence.

Improving working conditions and opportunities for massage therapists is an important goal for our stakeholder organizations to pursue. However, this single-minded focus on jacking up the number of training hours while ignoring the quality of instructional design and delivery is not only foolish – it is dangerous.

It is time to take a good look at the ramifications of such a decision. A curriculum with more clock hours is going to cost all parties involved more money. Tuitions will have to be raised if schools are to provide longer programs. That will make it more difficult for prospective students to afford massage school. Those receiving Federal student loans and other financial assistance will graduate with more debt. Is more debt a good thing? Usually not, except in the case of politicians and government.

The operative question is: will the graduate of a longer program, burdened with more debt, be able to go out into the field and make significantly more money than a graduate of today's programs? This is where the theory breaks down. Are the massage franchises going to automatically start paying more to graduates who have more hours on their school transcripts? Massage Envy currently has a corporate policy that does not allow individual franchises to pay a newly-hired therapist more – even if they have years of professional practice experience. It's doubtful more training would convert to better wages.

watching hours - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Are hospitals, chiropractors, clinics, spas and cruise ships going to raise the compensation paid to massage therapists because they have more hours of training? Will the public pay 50% more for massage because the therapist has, say 750 hours instead of 500? Will the marketplace support increased prices for massage? The real-world perspective is a resounding "NO."

Consumers are already backing away from massage according to AMTA surveys. So, who will be served by raising hours? New students will have to deal with the logistics and greater expense of being in school for a longer span of time. Facing an already shrinking pool of new applicants, schools will be further challenged as they are forced to provide more classroom space, develop new curricula and pay for more faculty and administrative staff hours. This kind of mandate could push another group of small proprietary massage schools off the cliff. The only institutions that can afford to absorb these expenses are the for-profit career colleges and the publicly-funded community colleges. If this were to occur, it would put more of the true lineage-holders of massage education out of business. That would be a tragic loss to the future of massage therapy.

Who wins here? One might think the public would benefit from a better, more consistent massage delivered, but more training hours in and of themselves do not a better therapist make. I can attest to that as I have received massage from the 2,000-hour wonders in Canada. My most disappointing massage experiences have been in Canada. I am sure there are great therapists north of the border but they are no more common than here in the U.S.

Will more hours taught by today's untrained or under-qualified instructors produce a better therapist? More poorly-taught hours could actually make a worse therapist by exposing students to poor role models over a longer period. Hours are not the answer to providing more consistent and effective massage services to the public.

And what about the much-touted "safety" issue? Aren't these laws in place to protect people from being injured? Well yes, but the fact is the incidence of actual harm from massage therapy is miniscule. But wouldn't more hours create a safer therapist? Anecdotal information from one of our major membership associations shows it may be just the opposite: the higher the number of education hours, the more insurance claims against practitioners. Armed with more tools in their utility belts, it appears that "advanced" therapists may be more likely to get themselves into trouble.

Some are just positive that if we raise our hours, then we will be accepted by mainstream healthcare. If history is any indication of how that works, there is clear evidence that an increase of few hundred hours is not going to open any doors. The medical establishment is not about to let in any practitioner group that does not have a rigorous college-level training requirements.

Case in point: the nursing field is on track to eliminate traditional diploma-level programs in hospitals and community colleges and require a bachelor's degree for all registered nurses. By 2015, the entry-level credential required to become a physical therapist will be a doctoral degree! If they won't hire nurses without a bachelor's, are they going to hire high school grads who finish massage school with even 900 or 1200 hours? Maybe – but only at a level comparable to CNA's or physical therapy assistants. Is working at the lowest levels of the medical pecking order an upgrade? Is that the recognition so many people's egos seek? Oh, that's right, there will be "benefits." Right, maybe if you are full time.

Anything we do hours-wise to gain acceptance by the allopathic medical community will mostly punish ourselves. The only real hope of gaining acceptance by the powers that be is to deliver consistently high-quality, professional massage services to the public. It is public demand that will bring us acceptance and that public trust must be earned.

Saddling entry-level therapists with more debt to work for no more money will prevent them from taking the ongoing continuing education that creates a successful therapists in our system. Remember, we are first-door providers with full autonomy. No gatekeeper sits on our heads. The public has direct access to us. We should be teaching entrepreneurship, professionalism and competency – not just a relaxation routine, enhanced with "deep tissue technique" which seems to have become a way to charge by the pound for pressure, usually un-artfully applied. It is time we provide a solid foundational education for all therapists and honestly advise that post-graduate specialization should be part of their career plan.

We do not have a chance of being accepted by the medical profession in general until we can deliver the goods. Unfortunately, our current system of massage education cannot reliably produce that at any hour level. Until we have a competency-based education with a standardized skill base, taught by properly trained teachers, we are going to continue to contract as a field. We're never going to be taken seriously as long as we keep producing self-congratulating projects like the MTBOK and ELAP that amount to "Bridges to Nowhere."

Fortunately, the solution is not only within our grasp, we have already created it. Sadly, it is being left twisting in the wind by our major stakeholder organizations. Tune in to the March issue for a new proposal to solve this problem. And bring your kites!

Click here for more information about Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB.


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