What does the survival of your practice have to do with being a member of a professional association? Plenty.
As practitioners, we often focus on the micromanagement: attracting and retaining business, recognizing referral sources, negotiating agreements, managing finances, charting, etc.—factors within our direct control and influence. However, our businesses are not islands unto themselves and are affected by multilayered, external frameworks, such as legal/regulatory, insurance industry and public relations, and interdependent workings with other health professionals.
Some jobs are just too big to handle individually, so business owners often turn to professional associations to influence these external variables. Quite frankly, without a professional association to support you, your practice is subject to manipulations by government, the insurance industry, media, other health-care providers and exploiters unabated by the checks and counters of an organized, resourceful professional association.
When someone asks me, “Why should I join a professional association?” my short answer is simply leverage and resources. Professional associations are service providers. These associations can perform many tasks, such as advocacy, public relations and “bulk-buying,” more effectively than individual practitioners could otherwise carry out. In return, members pay membership dues and volunteer for association tasks to carry out the needs of the association.
Boards of professional associations need to rapidly and frequently assess the needs of their members, plan ahead while responding to existing trends and advocate to protect existing privileges while remaining open to new opportunities and responding to new threats.
There are five services I look for in a professional association. These include:
- Information. I want to receive accurate and prompt information about the issues I need to know about. Better information means I can make better decisions that affect my practice.
- Advocacy. I want my professional interests brought effectively to allied health professionals, the insurance industry, government, media and any other organization my fellow practitioners and I encounter in our day-to-day practice.
- Public relations. I want an association to actively market to the general public and referring health-care providers on a regular and consistent basis regarding the scope and benefits of the massage profession’s services, and to counter any negative press that may harm the profession.
- Expansion of opportunities. By investing in research and building alliances, an association can open new doors for my colleagues and I in building credibility and position.
- Professional development. I want high-caliber, international experts brought locally to association events, so I can learn straight from the masters.
I need ready access to the things that will affect my practice. If auto insurers or workers’ compensation administrators are changing their billing practices, if legislation is going to affect me, if a mentor in our field is coming to town to speak—I want to know about it. And I want to know about it in the most cost-effective and timely manner. Ideally, I want an association to have me in an e-mail database and send me copies of reports as soon as they become news. I want to access the association website to gain further details, or to link to other websites for more information. I want to attend local chapter meetings and dialogue with colleagues to obtain strategies on how to deal with each new issue.
It’s only because of my professional association lobbying the government more than 15 years ago that massage therapy is included under the Regulated Health Professions Act; otherwise, massage therapy in Ontario, Canada, would have ended up in unregulated-land—with resultant barriers to accessing rehab cases, extended health plans and other tangible benefits.
Since then, my association has lobbied workers’ compensation for more than 300 percent increase in service fee rates (the greatest allotted to any of the health professions), inclusion in auto insurance representation, response to contentious issues with our regulatory body and a host of other advances only possible with the means and time investment of an organized professional association acting on our behalf. Resources are an issue here, and a professional association can only lobby to the extent of its membership dollars. For this reason alone, every professional should be a member of a professional association.
Massage therapy enjoys many positive representations in the public and media, but also many negative and unhelpful ones. A professional association has the means to organize effective campaigns to offer helpful and more accurate images and descriptions of the profession, as well as systematically downplay and eventually eliminate the negative ones.
Here are some items I would like to see North American massage therapy associations collaborate on:
- Carefully constructed messages delivered through print and Web media that go beyond the common issue of treating stress to include pain relief, rehabilitative and palliative care, work and sports-related injuries. We could attain public perception equal to the level currently enjoyed by physiotherapists and chiropractors.
- Evidence-based literature and supportive material to medical gatekeepers and associated health-care providers to build relations and referral infrastructure.
- Multimedia using the talents of medical illustrators to create both still-art and animated shorts to demonstrate the beneficent effects of manual therapy, similar to what pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies use. For the individual practitioner, hiring the services of a medical illustrator would be prohibitive, but a professional associate can create marketing pieces at a greater cost-effective scale. I’d like to see brochures, posters and animated clips for use on my website or in my clinic laptop so I can better educate my existing and potential clients to the benefits of my services.
There’s no doubt the lack of research in our profession keeps many doors closed to opportunities for massage therapists. Trish Dryden, R.M.T., discusses the importance of cultivating research literacy in the profession. She outlines the common challenges of complementary and alternative health care (CAHC) disciplines, such as chiropractic, naturopathy, Chinese medicine, homeopathy and massage therapy to “demonstrate safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness.” Dryden discusses a cross-profession and cross-province initiative to “collaborate and pool human and fiscal resources to meet this challenge.”
Dryden’s group, the Canadian Interdisciplinary Network for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research (IN-CAM) has outlined steps and strategies toward this goal, and it appears the main obstacle is motivating the collective will of the stakeholders (including all practitioners) to carry through.
Imagine the might of the collective CAHC professions to accomplish this goal. The opportunity to change our status from low-visibility practitioners in the CAHC funding stream to creating more opportunities in the main medical funding stream is, to say the least, exciting. We do not receive mainstream funding because, despite the fact soft-tissue injuries cost tax payers millions of dollars annually, CAHC disciplines do not have the research to back up the efficacy of their interventions. Last year, the Ontario government spent more than $100 billion on health-care services, with no money allotted to the CAHC stream.
The College of Massage Therapists of Ontario has taken the initiative to partner with the Holistic Health Research Foundation of Canada to advance research, and a number of other groups, such as IN-CAM, are paving the way toward the profession’s collective objectives.
A second way to expand opportunities for members is to create data banks on useful information. While access to research abstracts on massage therapy is essential, so is information about the harmful effects of stress, statistics on the benefits of workplace wellness programs, how many people are affected by work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMDs) and other useful information in a summarized, easy-to-understand format.
Providing concise statistics that professionals can reiterate to massage clients is key. This information can help professionals create new alliances with local industries by providing material to include in on-site presentations for the prevention and treatment of WRMDs. It may be time-consuming for health-care professionals to amass this information themselves, but professional associations can warehouse this useful data and share it with the whole membership.
A professional association can attract industry leaders and bring them to a lecture near you—and it has the resources and influence to attract the best. Some of these industry leaders include John Upledger, Paul St. John, Michael Leahy, Jean-Pierre Barral, Leon Chaitow, Barry Jenings, Doug Alexander, Cidalia Paiva, Trish Dryden and Pam Fitch, Tom Myers and John Barnes.
If you’re not happy with the results of your professional association, look no further than your mirror for the solution to your problem. To realize the benefits and influence the direction of your association and your profession, you may need to contribute to committee work, attend chapter meetings and encourage colleagues to join the association. You can’t expect to change the system unless you are in the system.
Your professional association gives you leverage and resources to meet your business needs of information, advocacy, public relations, expanding opportunities and professional development, and shores your defenses against those who would exploit or manipulate the profession and the source of your livelihood.
Don Dillon, R.M.T., is the author of Better Business Agreements: A Guide for Massage Therapists and the self-study workbook Charting Skills for Massage Therapists. Dillon has lectured in seven provinces, and many of his articles have appeared in industry publications including Massage Therapy Canada, Massage Therapy Today, AMTA Journal, MASSAGE Magazine, Massage Today, AMTWP Connections, Massage Therapist and various massage school and professional association newsletters. For more information, visit www.MTCoach.com.