Ruth Werner, immediate past president of the Massage Therapy Foundation, discusses challenges and opportunities related to massage therapy research with MASSAGE Magazine‘s editor in chief, Karen Menehan.

MASSAGE Magazine: What is the biggest challenge facing the Massage Therapy Foundation?

Ruth Werner: The hardest thing for the foundation is informing people what we are and where we’re going. It’s always amazing to me how many massage therapists have never heard of us, or don’t know what the foundation is doing on their behalf.

MM: What are your thoughts on the new Massage Therapy Foundation president, Jerilyn Cambron, D.C., Ph.D., L.M.T.?

RW: I couldn’t be more confident in the leadership of the next generation of the foundation. Jerilyn is exactly the right person in the right place. She’s a tremendously warm teacher, and in that we actually share an important skill, which is the ability to take ideas that are complex or intimidating, and break them down into pieces so that anyone who is interested can understand them and feel some ownership.

She’s also a professional researcher, so she’s got the mindset that’s going to help the foundation be more integrated in that world. The work that has come before, with previous presidents, has focused on promoting the foundation among our massage therapy cohorts.

MM: What is research doing for the massage field now?

RW: It’s opening some doors—but it’s a slow process if people don’t pay attention to what that research work is.

For example, some of the earliest massage research of this generation was questioning that massage and cancer don’t go in the same sentence. When I was in school in the mid ’80s, we were taught so many falsehoods about cancer. We had these goofy ideas, such as a person has to be seven years cancer-free before she can receive massage. We just didn’t know any better.

Some smart, brave people turned that question upside down. “Will massage make someone die quicker?” isn’t something you can research ethically. So they asked, “Does massage have some kind of benefit [for cancer patients]?” That totally changed the way massage was thought of in that context.

So, we don’t talk so much about the cancer, but what it’s like to live with this condition—the main challenges to quality of life, which have to do with pain and sleep and appetite and self-image. We started asking questions such as, “If you have cancer- or treatment-related pain, is there something massage can do for you?” And that’s when we started getting answers that have radically changed our scope of practice.

Now  we have massage therapists who build entire practices based on massage for cancer patients.

MM: Are people in the mainstream medical arena paying attention to research conducted on massage therapy?

RW: They pay attention when their patients demand it. I don’t have data on this, but my impression on this is the inclusion of massage therapy as a coping mechanism has been led by patients and supported by research.

Also—and this is where massage therapists should be paying attention—hospitals are rated on patient satisfaction. When massage is included, patient satisfaction rates go way, way up. Some hospitals are really pushing those boundaries.

The Mayo Clinic has been, in my knowledge, leading the charge on this. Mayo’s Brent Bauer, M.D., wants to get massage in recovery rooms for post-surgical pain relief. People who get really great care from the recovery process after surgery get lower re-admittance rates, meaning there are fewer complications—and that is very cost effective.

MM: How can research move the massage profession forward?

RW: The way massage education is today, we do not have it instituted as part of our job description to be research literate. Research literacy means being able to find a study, make sense of it, evaluate it and apply it.

Research literacy at this moment in time for most schools is not considered a necessity, still, for a new graduate. I think that’s a pity, because even massage therapists working in franchises, salons and spas can benefit by saying things like, “You have headaches, and here’s a great new article about massage and headaches, so this is validation of the work I’m going to do for you today.” That kind of communication turns one-time clients into repeat visitors.

Poll after poll shows us that massage consumers consider massage to be health care—so, if our clients are calling us health care providers, why aren’t we calling ourselves that? It shows we have a responsibility to be research literate.

Editor’s note: The August 2014 issue of MASSAGE Magazine will include an article by Ruth Werner on the importance including research in massage schools’ curriculum.