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Massage Today
August, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 08

Massage Profession Growing Up

By Christy Schumacher, NCTMB

Thanks to integrative medicine and the growing inclusion of massage therapists in conventional medical and health care treatment protocols, there is a growing segment of professionals who call themselves massage therapists, but provide services and expertise that go beyond either the delivery or teaching of massage therapy.

We are business consultants, entrepreneurs, authors, marketers, academics and otherwise substantial contributors to varying industries that go beyond luxury and personal services to include medicine and health care, exercise and sports, among others. With these advancements, we are able to influence the politics, economics and delivery of health care in ways that advocate on behalf of patients and expand our options as professionals.

A little over a decade ago, I began studying massage therapy, nutrition, herbology and other means of "natural" healing. By 2003, I was practicing as a licensed massage therapist and obtained my National Certification in 2005. After developing a love of massage and integrative medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, naturopathic medicine, etc) I decided to design my bachelor's degree around patient advocacy and the ethics of integrative health care. However, the love I had for practicing massage therapy was striking compared to my other endeavors. Even after graduating from a great university with a self-designed degree, I chose to continue on as a massage therapist at the spa where I worked for more than two years. However, in 2008 I found myself abruptly on disability with little chance of re-entering the massage profession. I began to wonder: if one cannot physically provide massage full-time (or even part-time, in my case), how can they call themselves a massage therapist?

Growing Up - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark After recovering from a number of orthopedic surgeries, almost two years on disability and facing a faltering economy, I decided to re-enter the integrative health care field through volunteer work. It was important to me to help an organization that understood how necessary it is to expand access to massage therapy and other integrative health services to under-served and low-income populations. My time in school revealed that the overwhelming majority of consumers of massage therapy (and other complementary and alternative health care services) are people that mirror several of the following demographics: white, middle to upper-class, college-educated and female. My contention is that massage therapy can provide an extraordinary contribution to the health care system of the 21st century for all communities regardless of status. And after going through an extensive orthopedic disability, with limited to no ability to access these services through my insurance, I became overwhelmingly committed to working to advance the massage profession for all patients.

At the end of 2010, I made contact with Alternative Healing Network, a 501(c)(3) non-profit in San Diego. The organization itself has three main endeavors: free weekly clinics in under-served neighborhoods, special events such as a Healing Arts Festival and an integrative health and wellness center called Adams Avenue Integrative Health. As soon as I began volunteering, I realized how special this organization was. This was the perfect opportunity to utilize my expertise in integrative medicine and contribute to the evolution of our health care system.

Alternative Healing Network is close to reaching sustainability through its storefront wellness center, the Adams Avenue Integrative Health. Profits subsidize services on a sliding scale, allowing access to almost all income levels, but more importantly, the storefront provides the means to provide free services each week in under-served neighborhoods. In 2011, an additional monthly clinic was started to provide services to survivors of domestic violence (and the employees who work at the shelter). This system of community service through internal sustainability is quite unique; most non-profits rely primarily upon grants and donations. It was an intriguing concept and one that I saw much potential in.

As the Chief Executive Officer, I have novel ideas about how to run Adams Avenue Integrative Health and make it truly sustainable while providing a template for the future of health care. One of the first changes I made was to announce that gratuity was included in our existing prices. Obviously not an easy sell to my staff, this has proven to be an incredible means for improving access to those who would otherwise not utilize massage for regular wellness care. My reasoning behind this: when do you tip your nurse, your doctor, your physical therapist or your phlebotomist? These are respected professionals who are considered legitimate health care providers. Why should we give our patients or clients another reason to not consider us similarly? Allowing consumers/clients/patients a means to access massage without the stress of not knowing how much to pay or tip, has been a powerful incentive to sustain their patronage.

One of the most interesting facets of my time at the center, is drawing upon my expertise in patient communication, compliance and ethics. I fully credit my education and work as a massage therapist in my by ability to speak to these issues. Every massage therapist knows that when someone gets on your table, they feel apt to reveal anything and everything to you. Often times, this bumps up (or even crashes) against our scope of practice as therapists. We have all been asked questions about things that are completely beyond our scope of practice and we must learn effective ways to answer these questions. Now that my job is to manage a team of varied clinicians, it is clear that this is not unique to massage therapists. In fact, all health care providers encounter this and benefit from knowing where their scope ends and their colleague's scope begins.

Leading a team of complimentary and primary health care providers is an incredibly fulfilling way to continue a career as a massage therapist. The technical education, the professional experience and the people I meet and work with have made it all worthwhile and unspeakably fulfilling. There are many ways to call yourself a professional massage therapist and pursue your ultimate dreams of helping those around you reach and maintain health and wellness.

Christy Schumacher is a medical ethicist and massage therapist who works with integrative health care practitioners to improve access to and utilization of professional massage therapy within conventional medicine. She has a strong background in public health, evidence-based medicine and outcomes-based models of care.


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