What It's Like to Be a Hospital-Based Massage Therapist

By Ryan Hoyme, LMT, BCTMB
December 4, 2018

What It's Like to Be a Hospital-Based Massage Therapist

By Ryan Hoyme, LMT, BCTMB
December 4, 2018

It was the early 1990s the first time I ever saw a massage therapist in a health care setting in my home state of Minnesota. I was working at a nursing home at the time, and I learned of a resident who would receive weekly massages (which I thought was great). As part of the health care team, my coworkers and I coordinated with the massage therapist to engage a call-light within the hallway halfway through the massage session; this was our indicator to enter the room and assist the resident in turning her to her other side to continue the session.

I found myself intrigued by this resident and the massage therapist; my curiosity led me to ask the massage therapist questions. In the nursing home where I worked, we routinely provided the residents with five-minute massages when they went to bed (with watered-down lotion). However, I had never witnessed the work of a massage therapist in this type of environment until I began assisting this resident—my life would never be the same.

Forming My Own Business

Fast forward to 1999—when I opened my own massage business. At the time, I was working in a nursing home as a trained medication aide to support my family, while my massage practice grew.

I was amazed at how quickly word spread in the nursing home that I was a massage therapist. Slowly but surely, I started to build part of my clientele with nurses, and, eventually, even a few residents.

Over time, I learned the family members of the residents were always looking for ways to make their mom's or dad's lives more comfortable—massage was a great way for a lot of them. Many times, I found a purposeful 30-minute massage to be best for this population; most of them were frail, but very much enjoyed the benefits of massage. At that time, I would use their own bed rather than my massage table during the session. I found bringing minimal supplies to be best. It was all about the work I did and the results my residents felt.

In just a couple of years, I had my own successful massage therapy business. Working in the health care setting was a major part of that business, and it positioned me well compared to other massage therapists in my state. In early 2001, I was presented with the opportunity to teach massage therapy. This was my chance to share my journey and help inspire the next generation of massage therapists to serve all kinds of clients and patients.

Earning the Right Credentials

Throughout the years, I found myself missing the relationships I formed with my residents at the nursing home. I missed the health care environment. I knew I needed to make a change, but I was unsure of how to do it. Before I made any big changes, I pursued and proudly earned my Board Certification in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (BCTMB) from the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB). I knew that if I wanted to get back into the health care arena, I would have to set myself apart from other therapists fighting for the same job. I also wanted to showcase my assessment skills, critical thinking abilities, advanced knowledge, and skills—and earning a true credential was the only way I knew how to do it.

Finding the Job

Coincidentally, in mid-2016, my eye caught an advertisement for a part-time massage therapist position in a nearby, well-known hospital, where board certification was a requirement. I applied right away, interviewed, and was hired within two weeks. My position included performing massages for both outpatients and inpatients. I loved the idea of working with both types of patients. I would never have the same session twice, and I knew I would never feel bored. From the day I started, I felt like I was on top of the world.

The Learning Curve

After I was hired at the hospital, I was required to complete two months of training with my fellow massage therapists before I could be on my own. Every therapist was board certified in therapeutic massage and bodywork, just like me. We understood one another's credential, and the rest of the health care team did too. From the first day, I felt like I was truly a part of a community. Words cannot express how much I appreciated the guidance from all the massage therapists that helped me become the best hospital-based massage therapist I could be.

Throughout my training, it became obvious to me that I would never have the same session twice. For that reason, my continued dedication to education and credentials could never stop. Board certification was certainly my stepping stone to this job, but it was up to me to keep it as my career. Like many of my fellow massage therapists at the hospital, I set my sights on specialty certificates and advanced continuing education courses to further my knowledge and hone my skills. In fact, NCBTMB will soon be offering a Hospital-Based Massage Therapy Specialty Certificate. I plan to apply as soon as it is released.

Over the years, I have become fairly well-versed in medical terminology, but I still need to look things up on the internet, or ask the nurses and doctors questions once in a while. If you plan to work in this environment, be sure to let go of any reservations you may have about asking questions. Like the old saying goes, the only dumb questions are the ones you don't ask.

The Order of Command

One of my biggest challenges working as a board certified massage therapist in a hospital was building connections with the staff. While I had similar credentials, I found I often had to educate them about massage therapy—and I enjoyed it!

Many years ago, the nursing profession routinely provided patients light massages to help ease their pain; nowadays, a lot has changed. There is so much more charting. And, even more importantly, there is an entirely different chain of command.

In my current role, I must first ask a patient's nurse if it is appropriate for him/her to receive massage before I schedule an appointment. If the nurse approves they will put an order in the computerized system. Once I receive the order, I must review the patient's chart in detail to make sure it is appropriate to give him/her a massage from my perspective, as the massage therapist.

When I have any concerns, I work directly with the patient's nurse to address them and ask any necessary questions. Throughout my tenure at the hospital, I have learned nurses really appreciate me asking questions; like me, they too, want the best for their patients. When I enter a patient's room, I always share with the patient that his/her nurse recommended massage. I love leading with that, because the nurses look like rock stars! Patients are so thankful for the work we do as massage therapists.

A Typical Day as a Hospital-Based MT

Working in the hospital setting is different than any other environment I have ever worked in as a massage therapist. My days are never the same. Some days, I will spend my hours in ambulatory surgery or medical surgery. Other days, I am in the birthing center, the mental health unit, or even in the rehabilitation center. I love the ability to experience all kinds of patient cases, and I am constantly thinking on my toes to coordinate with the nurses to provide the best possible care.

Beyond my variety of patients, the costs for massage are entirely different, too. In fact, inpatient massages are completely free to the patients. Both patients and their families are consistently shocked (and very grateful) for this.

Truthfully, some of the patients would not be able to afford massage therapy without the hospital's involvement. Each time I enter a new patient's room, I know this is my opportunity to educate him/her and family members on the benefits of massage therapy. I take so much pride in what I do, and I love being able to share that with the patients I serve.

By being so open and communicative with patients and their families, I also know I am putting their mind at ease; they are reassured I am competent, confident, and skilled to do what I do.

I also am sure to mention my discussions with their nurses—I want them to know the entire hospital team is engaged and working together to ensure they receive the best possible care.

As much as I do not wish to see patients return to the hospital after they have been released, I always love when one of the first things they ask a nurse upon return is if they can get a massage. It happens more often than you think! I am always ready and excited to serve them again, and to continue educating them about massage.

Our Work is Never Done

As it sounds, I am constantly busy throughout the day—my day is never the same. If I do have downtime, I try to give back to my fellow staff members, such as the nurses. If I am waiting for a doctor to finish a patient visit, or for a patient to finish a meal, I will unload my desk portal pro and provide quick, five or ten-minute massages for the staff. It is my way of giving back to them for all they do for their patients—and for me!

Believe it when I say that a massage therapist's work, particularly in the hospital environment, is never done. Working in this environment requires a lot of training, true credentials, a lot of patience, and a continued desire to continue learning. Even though it is near impossible to learn or know everything about hospital-based massage therapy (it would take decades!), I like it that way. It pushes me to be a better massage therapist who is constantly learning, growing, and becoming the best possible massage therapist I can be.

If this is a setting you feel passionate about, do yourself a favor and earn your credentials. Take courses dedicated to this setting. Take the board certification exam and display BCTMB proudly on your resume. Talk to fellow massage therapists currently working in this setting to enter the realm with realistic expectations. Keep all these tips in mind, and follow through on them, and you will never be disappointed in your decision to serve this community.