Help for Hospital-Based Massage Therapy

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS
December 13, 2012

Help for Hospital-Based Massage Therapy

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS
December 13, 2012

As interest in hospital-based massage therapy grows, more and more massage therapists want to work in hospitals. Many have asked for guidance in starting and joining hospital-based massage therapy (HBMT) programs. Massage therapists have much to offer the hospital setting. With skilled touch and caring hearts, massage therapists are a natural fit. We can support patients, families and hospital staff, where our services are badly needed. It is an exciting time to be learning, teaching and serving in these settings.

For many therapists, the point of entry into hospital work is oncology massage. These two movements — hospital-based massage therapy and oncology massage — serve each other. To the many therapists interested in HBMT, I offer the Society for Oncology Massage, on the growing list of resources below.


Although there is increased interest in HBMT, massage therapists face many challenges in starting up programs and even working in existing programs. Many of these challenges are educational: most basic massage training programs do not adequately prepare massage therapists for electronic medical records, HIPAA, hospital culture and the norms of professional behavior. Likewise, skills in program development and massage protocols for hospital settings are not typically part of basic education. Moreover, many massage therapists tell me how overwhelmed and under prepared they feel when working with the complex medical conditions and varied client presentations they find in the hospital setting. As a profession, we have a lot to learn.


The following are some valuable HBMT resources:

  1. A six-part webinar series on Hospital-Based Massage Therapy programs. Each webinar will feature a representative from a different hospital program, including MD Anderson Cancer Center, California-Pacific Medical Center, Beaumont Health System, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Boston Medical Center. Presenters will answer questions about inpatient and outpatient work, program structure, treatment space, funding and billing. They will share how they started their programs, how the programs evolved and the lessons learned along the way. Some will describe HBMT training programs they offer on-site, as well. With wise words from each presenter, and photographs from each facility, these webinars offer a rare chance to "look inside" these hospital settings. For therapists starting work in a hospital, building a new program from scratch or hoping to work in this setting, the presenters’ perspective can clear the path and avoid reinventing the wheel. During the live series, January 15 through February 19, 2013, the webinars are interactive, with a chance for participants to ask questions at the end. After the series, recorded sessions are available on demand, indefinitely, as an ongoing resource. The webinars are offered by the Benjamin Institute at Continuing education hours are available from the live and recorded series.

  2. A Hospital-Based Massage Therapy Task Force is looking at HBMT programs around the country, with a current focus on training programs. In the future, they will focus on competencies necessary for successful HBMT work. This task force is a subgroup of the Clinical Care Working Group (CWG) of the Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care (ACCAHC – This group will serve as a clearinghouse for HBMT information. Please contact MK Brennan, MS, RN, LMBT, one of the task force members, if you have information to share about your own HBMT program or training. She can be reached at The small task force and a heavy workload means they might not be able to respond to all e-mails but they will appreciate your input. From studying the status of HBMT, the task force hopes to disseminate information one day soon.

  3. Gayle MacDonald wrote a fabulous book, Massage for the Hospital Patient and Medically Frail Client. Philadelphia. This is an invaluable resource that demystifies work in a hospital setting with clear protocols, hospital culture and loads of information. Anyone and everyone interested in hospital-based massage should read this textbook. For help with working with medically complex conditions, I offer up my own textbook, Medical Conditions and Massage Therapy: A Decision Tree Approach. It features massage guidelines, massage pressure recommendations, interview questions and even tips for communicating with physicians and nurses about common medical conditions.

  4. The AMTA has a wonderful guide, "Working in a Health Care Environment," which is part of the AMTA Career Success Series. Produced by the AMTA Health Care Operational Committee, it is available at

  5. The Hospital-Based Massage Network still provides a long list of resources on CD and on their website. Among them are CDs with "Hospital-Based Massage Programs in Review," and "Exploring Hospital-Based Massage." There are links to relevant trainings and a registry for hospital based programs. Find them at

  6. The Society for Oncology Massage ( Many, many hospital programs begin HBMT by serving cancer patients. Alleviation of cancer symptoms is a high priority and hospital massage programs often start there with massage services in palliative care, radiation oncology, medical oncology and oncology social work. For this reason, oncology massage training is a stepping stone to hospital work. The Society for Oncology Massage lists recognized instructors, courses in specialized hospital work and foundational courses in oncology massage. Therapists with oncology massage training can often transfer those skills to work with other medically complex populations in the hospital such as stroke, diabetes, post-cardiac surgery and liver failure.

The National Conversation

These are just some of the resources that are contributing to the national conversation about hospital-based massage. That conversation should answer important questions including: How can we prepare the profession to move into this setting? What will it take for massage therapy to assume a greater role in health care? How can massage therapists work more skillfully with people with complex medical conditions, in and out of the hospital? How will we need to improve our skills in interviewing, charting, hands-on applications, clinical decision-making and using research evidence?

The answers to these questions and others will deepen our skills and move our profession forward. Patients, caregivers, hospital staff and the massage profession will benefit when we can answer the call to work in the hospital setting. Then we will move firmly into place in health care.