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Q: "Is it ok for me to sell products, like candles and oils, to my clients? What about things like herbs and vitamins?"
As with many issues in our field, the massage therapist’s intent is central to this question, according to Sari Spieler, L.M.P., who is co-founder of the Northwest Coalition of Massage Educators, a massage consultant and an ethics instructor in practice-management courses.
"Massage therapists who are considering selling products need to ask themselves, ‘What is my relationship with the client? Is my focus to be a health-care provider or a resource person, a product supplier or retail specialist? Why am I selling products? Do I believe in them?’" Spieler says.
The basic question of "What am I selling and why?" is easy to answer when compared to the larger question of "In what state of impressionability is my client when I attempt to make the sale," according to Spieler. She says that when you make the decision to try to sell something, you must make sure the client is not in a vulnerable state. She also says you should ask yourself two additional questions: "Is there a clear power differential between the client and myself right now?" and "Am I setting the client up to take my advice because of his/her present need, rather than the service I am supposed to be providing?"
Spieler says the consideration of any product’s sale should always be based on the clients’ interests, needs and vulnerabilities. For example, if you find yourself trying to sell an herbal eye pillow to someone trying to heal from a car accident, you might want to question your motives, she says.
"If the client is clothed and not in a vulnerable state and what you are selling is more educational in nature … then you are more likely to offer something about which the client can make a decision that is in their best interest," says Spieler.
Selling products – specifically, health-and-wellness items – because your clients can’t find them elsewhere would fall on the positive side of this argument, according to Spieler. "Herbal eye pillows or bottles of massage oils or aromatherapy products fall into this ‘hard to find’ category," Spieler says. "In my case, I make ice packs available to my clients who are going through injury recovery because I’ve got more of a therapeutically based practice."
Spieler also says it’s vital to research laws regarding the sale of products in your state, and in regard to your scope of practice. Therapists need to do their homework regarding local business ordinances and their own states’ massage-licensing regulations.
David Kent, L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., has run a successful practice in Deltona, Florida, for 11 years. His Muscular Pain Relief Center employs nine therapists; most of his referrals come from physicians and chiropractors; and he has a Web site on which he counsels massage therapists about business practices. Kent agrees with Spieler that there are ethical, legal, business and monetary issues involved in a therapist’s decision to sell products.
Kent believes there are many products on the market that are beneficial to his clients, but he says that before a massage therapist begins selling products, she or he should ask three questions.
The first question is, "Am I properly trained to sell this product?" If not, doing so could be illegal, Kent says. He cites nutritional supplements as one example of a product that he, as a massage therapist, cannot legally sell to clients under Florida massage licensure.
"In Florida, I can’t even tell you to take an aspirin because that’s not what my massage license says," he explains.
The second question is, "Is it worth having money and time tied up in inventory and bookwork?" If you sell products, you have to investigate your state’s sales-tax rules and register with the state.
"Once you register you must constantly send in reports to the state, whether or not you sell anything from that point forward," Kent says. "There’s a lot of hassle in reporting, and it takes a lot of time."
The third question is, "If I sell products, is it going to hinder my referral base?"
"The doctors I market to don’t want to hear that I’m selling stuff; they frown upon that, in my experience," Kent says. "My practice looks more legitimate if I’m only selling therapy."
Finally, Kent counsels that massage therapists be cautious about what he calls "bending our scope of practice."
"The medical industry recognizes that massage therapy can sometimes overstep our bounds," he says. "I make sure I can go to the doctors who refer to me and tell them, ‘Don’t worry; if you send me a patient, they aren’t going to come back to you with special pillows, vitamins or creams. All you’re going to hear from me is about their progress.’"
– Charlotte Michael Versagi, L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., is a journalist and a massage therapist who specializes in manual lymph drainage and work with clients with cancer.
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