Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare’s motto is “Helping people live the healthiest lives possible.”

To achieve that mission, the nonprofit healthcare system of 23 hospitals and 170 clinics located throughout Utah is all in on treating the whole person using all available tools, including massage therapy.

As evidence mounts that lifestyle has a big impact on overall health, Intermountain Healthcare moved to make sure the people in their community had access to services to help them effectively improve their well-being and manage chronic conditions, said Kelly Woodward, DO, the medical director of the healthcare system’s LiVe Well Center in Park City, Utah.

To that end, Intermountain Healthcare created its LiVe Well Centers, facilities that offer Intermountain patients and members of the community services such as massage therapy, mindfulness, stress management, acupuncture, nutrition counseling, exercise classes and therapies, functional medicine, and wellness and lifestyle coaching.

“(The LiVe Well Centers) are to round out and to give options that in many cases are preferable to a surgical procedure or a long-term medication,” said Woodward, or can be used in conjunction with and to enhance more commonplace medical therapies.

Currently, the healthcare system has four LiVe Well Centers, he said. Only two offer massage therapy now, but they expect as the LiVe Well Centers grow, massage therapy will be offered in additional locations.

“It’s a fairly new program, but now it’s to the point we recognize—and now people, not only our other physicians and clinical teams at other sites, but also the community and patients—are asking for it, so we want to be able to start to build that, and so clearly this is going to be a growth area,” said Woodward.

Bringing in complementary therapies such as massage into a traditional medical setting required a methodical and orderly introduction, he said. Intermountain Healthcare started at one location, Park City, and began offering therapeutic massage to its in-hospital patients first so that clinical teams could slowly be exposed to the benefits of massage.

“They quickly started understanding how it can be applied (and) when it should be applied,” said Woodward.

This careful introduction into the hospital setting was successful. Soon clinicians were prescribing massage therapy for their patients, and the Park City LiVe Well Center expanded its facility so that massage therapy and other services could be offered to community members who weren’t patients in the hospital.

The nonprofit Intermountain Healthcare system in Utah comprises 23 hospitals and nearly 200 clinics, some of which offer massage therapy. Here, massage therapist Judy Bishop and a client

Specialized Techniques

Right now, with such a small program, there is only one full-time and one part-time massage therapist on staff. Woodward said he expects more will be hired as the program expands.

“We were very selective about making sure the massage therapists we hired were highly qualified and had a good understanding of the clinical setting, because they’re doing this in the context of people’s medical conditions and to better their therapy and their chronic condition management,” he said.

At least for the launch of massage therapy services, they wanted massage therapists who had experience working in a medical setting, who understood the patient journey within a hospital and privacy rules, as well as the nuances of how to work with nursing staff and how to coordinate and collaborate in team-based care, Woodward explained.

They also sought to hire massage therapists who have specific training in such techniques as oncology massage, pregnancy massage, musculoskeletal techniques and lymph massage.

“As a health system, we recognize we’re applying therapeutic massage personalized to the conditions and health circumstances of each patient,” Woodward said, adding that patients are dealing with specific pain conditions or cancers or other conditions for which massage must be personalized. “That’s our approach, and I think it has been very meaningful for us.”

Having specialized massage training is a must if massage therapists want to work in a clinical setting, said Judy Bishop, LMT, the full-time massage therapist at Park City’s LiVe Well Center.

“You never know what’s going to walk through your door, and it’s constantly challenging,” she said. Having only basic massage therapy training is not going to be enough.

Bishop has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, training in oncology massage, and is certified in medical massage and manual lymphatic drainage, among other trainings and certifications.

She recommends having multiple specializations and trainings because massage therapists in a clinical setting will see a wide range of people in various states of health and will have to know specific techniques to address particular conditions.

Intermountain Healthcare doesn’t yet track clinical data related to its massage therapy services, Woodward said, so it cannot correlate health outcomes with utilization. Anecdotally, however, he said both patients and clinicians are recognizing the high level of effectiveness massage therapy has in helping manage chronic pain for a variety of conditions.

For instance, both the concussion program and the cancer program at Intermountain Healthcare are increasingly turning to massage therapy for the benefits it provides patients.

Park City’s LiVe Well Center’s massage therapist Judy Bishop and a client

The Healthcare Team

Bishop sees clients for a variety of conditions and reasons, from limited range of motion to scar tissue to recovery from surgeries, but the number-one issue she sees clients for is back pain.

Working in a medical setting is different from working in a private studio or spa setting, she said. At Intermountain Healthcare’s Park City LiVe Well Center, she often interacts with on-staff clinicians who have referred their patients to her, so that together they can provide the best service and get the best possible outcomes for patients.

As part of a healthcare system, she is also expected to complete paperwork and put notes after each massage session in the hospital’s medical recording system so that all members of the clinical team have access to patients’ entire service history.

Another part of the job of being a massage therapist in a clinical setting is educating clinicians steeped in traditional medicine about massage therapy and massage therapists, Bishop said, adding, “The term massage therapist has come a long way.”

Bishop makes an effort to educate all types of healthcare professionals that massage encompasses not just the relaxation massage people get at spas, but very specific types of massage with rigorous training that benefit the health of individuals.

Working as part of a team in a hospital setting is a “great experience,” Bishop said. “From a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint, it’s a fantastic environment to be involved in. You’re always learning something.”

It’s an ongoing educational process, she said, and a worthwhile one as clinicians come to realize what massage therapy can offer patients and how massage therapists can be a vital part of the healthcare team.

Photo credit:
Courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare

About the Author

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine; her articles include “Licensure for Ayurvedic Practitioners May be Coming Soon” and Massage Improves Quality of Life for Disabled People.”