Our arguments about the need for massage therapy at this time tend to focus on the need for physical contact—but does that make sense in an age of pandemics?

I once had a teacher who was chronically late to class, sometimes by as much as 40 minutes. One evening, she explained, “You just wait until you have your own massage practices. You’re going to have clients drop in when you’re trying to leave, and you’ll have to stay to help them!”

No, I won’t, I said to myself. I’d already had enough experience in other professions to know a massage therapist’s job is not to facilitate dependency but to cultivate trust and mutual respect, both of which require boundaries.

That year, when a visiting chiropractor also told our class we had to learn other therapies in order to distinguish ourselves from other massage therapists, I intuited something else my simple but thriving practice later proved: People come to us for our touch, not our tools, training or techniques, and before we lay our hands on them, we touch them with our presence.

If that touch warrants trust, respect, confidence and compassion, clients feel free to come back, not out of a need for our services, or because nobody else in town can do what we do. They return, or invite us to return, because they feel better having shared this experience.

Our arguments about the need for massage therapy at this time tend to focus on the need for physical contact, which has exposed a deficiency in our understanding of what touch means.

As our profession changes, as our understanding of COVID-19 grows, and as we strive to preserve what we cherish about our work, a healthy, professional touch also means answering this question: What do we need to know about the short and long-term effects this pathogen has on those it infects to fully understand how to continue competently practicing massage therapy? 

Because this question isn’t going away. As we enter what epidemiologists warn will be “an age of pandemics,” we’ll encounter this question again and again like an irritating song.

When state mandates were relaxed and we had to individually interpret our ethical standards regarding returning to work, this happened, in part, because most of us couldn’t afford to wait for the medical research necessary to answer that question. Rather than defend the decisions we’re having to make, we can learn from our current experiences and begin finding ways to create a better sense of shared accountability—to cultivate the touch that precedes physical contact.

One solution is for our trade associations to work with insurance companies to establish a pretax savings account we can fall back on during public health crises. Like a health savings account, unused funds would accrue interest and roll over every year, and could even be rolled into retirement accounts when the account holder reaches a certain age.

Another solution is for our accrediting boards to expand our education to help students and seasoned professionals weather what remains of COVID-19 while preparing for other pandemics.

We need standard, national curricula on the prevention of infectious diseases; reading, understanding and applying medical research; and electives on how to design and conduct clinical studies. I recognize that research and education reform take time and money, but our industry has unique concerns—such as knowing the infection rates among massage therapists who stringently adhere to CDC guidelines—that no one else will study.

Social media also isn’t the ideal place for the dissemination of research and training. These forums foster nepotism, derision and cherry-picking. One solution is to create a professional space where we all can find one another when we need each other most. Perhaps our local schools could provide this kind of space, where virtual forums can be organized to facilitate conversations that bring us together at state and national levels.

Surely there are other ideas and better solutions, but no one’s officially asking. I’m writing this reflection seven months into this pandemic, still wishing for moderated video meetings with leaders who invite and share visions for our industry; for a body of vetted research that we all have access to and have been trained to respectfully discuss.

To the many educators and lobbyists working on our behalf, I thank you. I also plead: Bring us together. Please. If our industry doesn’t equip us to answer that question—to deal with that irritating song that’s still playing, and will again—we’ll remain underprepared, defensive and misunderstood.

About the Author:

Erin Lambert Hartman, LMT, is a licensed massage therapist and Integrated Positional Therapy (IPT) practitioner in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She closed her office in June and offers outdoor-only IPT for a few clients when weather is warm and numbers are low. She’s also a freelance writer through Upwork.