AMTA Announces 2020 Distinguished Service Award Recipient

Ann Blair Kennedy

The Distinguished Service Award is given annually to honor someone who has contributed to the massage therapy profession in an outstanding manner and to acknowledge diligent volunteerism done in an altruistic manner.

Ann Blair Kennedy, DrPH is the recipient of AMTA’s 2020 Distinguished Service Award.

Dr. Kennedy has dedicated many years of service to the massage therapy profession and to AMTA. After a long career as an active massage therapist, she shifted her time to complete her DrPH and accelerated her approach to massage therapy research. She continues to be an advocate for massage therapy; an educator who teaches future doctors to consider integrative therapies including massage; a researcher; an editor; and, still an active volunteer. And, she continues to serve this year as chair of the National Governance Committee.

She is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the division of Behavioral, Social, and Population Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina School Of Medicine Greenville (U of SC SOM Greenville) in the department of Biomedical Sciences. She became a licensed massage therapist in 1999 and is also Board Certified.

Dr. Kennedy serves on the Greenville Technical College Massage Therapy Program’s Advisory Board and works with Prisma Health volunteering on committees that involve women in medicine and science as well as the LGBTQ+ Alliance (a committee working to improve experiences of LGBTQ+ patients and team members). She is a faculty mentor for the Student Advocates for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (SADIE) at U of SC SOM Greenville.

In honor of her award, we interviewed Dr. Kennedy about the massage therapy profession and her career.

What do you enjoy most about being a massage therapist? What are the challenges?

What I enjoy most now, as I am not currently in practice, is my service to the profession through my volunteering for the AMTA and the Massage Therapy Foundation. The friends, connections, and experiences that I have made through these groups are what led me to pursue a doctorate in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior to become a researcher. As a massage therapist, a researcher, and Executive Editor/Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, I enjoy being on the front lines of investigations of the massage therapy profession.

The challenges for this part of my career as a massage therapist and researcher are always finding funding to continue the research to further the field. My team for our latest study, Project COPE: Chronicling Healthcare Providers Pandemic Experiences launched in April and we’ve been following all types of healthcare providers, including MTs, since then. We are still accepting people into the study at this time and we hope to be able to shine the light on and share the stories of these participants in our study.

Our other challenge is finding and keeping participants in our study, some MTs seem to think their input isn’t important or that they aren’t a part of healthcare. But here, we think they are and many have been locked out of the system and have been told they aren’t essential to helping improve health and wellness. From our data, many have taken this as meaning their work isn’t valid, which we disagree with wholeheartedly. We hope to expand our study to include patients/clients who had their care disrupted in the future, depending on funding of course.  

What has changed the most about the massage therapy profession since you first started your career?

When I first came out of school 21 years ago, most people wanted to go into private practice and own their own businesses. That seems to have shifted, and more who enter the profession are seeking to be employees. Also, massage therapy research has greatly increased. Based on a quick PubMed search, in 1999 there were 199 articles published about massage/massage therapy, and each year that number has increased, in 2019, 671 articles were published.

Why did you become a member of AMTA?

I was raised in a family where service was important and both my parents were members of their professional associations. Both also volunteered for their associations over the course of their careers. I joined AMTA when I was a student because it was a non-profit professional association that also had volunteer opportunities. I wanted to give back to the profession that changed my life.

How has your volunteer work and giving back to the profession impacted you?

My volunteer work led directly to eventually becoming a medical school professor. That might seem strange, but I can even pinpoint the conversation that started it all. In 2006, I joined the Governance Standing Committee and over the course of the next year, I began to understand how the association worked through all the bylaws, policies, and culture of the association. In 2007, on one of the Governance Committee calls we were discussing the position statements of the association that were first introduced in 2006. I remember Dan Barrow, another committee member and eventual chair of the committee, saying “Someone should just go look at the MTF website and Pubmed and see what research is out there to maybe write a position statement.” A short time later, I did just that. That started me on my path.

In 2008, I authored or co-authored three position statements that were accepted by the association and went on to write many more. This led me to a love of and a passion for massage therapy research. What I was noticing in much of that research though was that I couldn’t use a lot of it in my practice. Much of it did not include massage therapists in the planning or delivery of the interventions that were being reported. I then realized in 2011 that if I wanted massage therapy research to include massage therapists, I might just need to go back to school.

In 2012, I entered my doctoral program at the age of 39 with a 5 year old and 7 year old at home. I finished my Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree in three and a half years which is very fast in my particular field. Only one other student from my cohort also finished in that amount of time. I went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship and then was hired as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville. All along the way, I have been conducting some type of research about massage therapy or the massage therapy profession. I would not have ever made it to this path without my service to the profession and those who helped light my path and supported me when I wanted to quit because it was too hard.

I would also like to thank the American Massage Therapy Association and all its staff and volunteers. It is because of all of you that I decided to go to school in the first place. You are the reason that I am here; I hope I can do our profession proud.

So this service directed me to change careers. But what that doesn’t tell you is about the friendships, love, and gratitude that I’ve also gained because of volunteering. I’ve met so many wonderful people and have traveled all over the US for conventions and that would not have happened had it not been for the AMTA. Simply put AMTA changed my life and I can’t thank the association enough for that.

Do you have advice about how to have a long career in massage therapy? Or advice for a therapist just starting their career?  

Interestingly, Niki Munk and I actually published a paper on just this in 2017. It is entitled “Experienced Practitioners’ Beliefs Utilized to Create a Successful Massage Therapist Conceptual Model: a Qualitative Investigation” What we found was that for MTs to be successful there were four areas that needed to be in place. 1) Effectively establish therapeutic relationships with clients/patients through good communication, professionalism, and personal aspects; 2) Develop massage therapy business acumen; 3) Seek valuable learning environments and opportunities; and 4) Create strong social ties and networks including joining professional associations, having good work and home support systems, and having great mentors. That research needs to be more thoroughly tested, but it was the beginning of something interesting.