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Where Do You Work? Practicing Massage Therapy in a Health Care Setting

AMTA member Jeremy E. Miller is a  massage therapist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital's Penny George Institute for Health & Healing. Read Jeremy's candid responses about what it's really like to work within a health care environment.

What specific types of education have helped you succeed in your current role?
I have taken classes on oncology massage, pregnancy massage and trigger point therapy, which have all been helpful in my current position. In addition, didactic classes like medical terminology, human anatomy and physiology, and ethics come in extremely handy within the health care setting. Really, the most helpful was a series in orthopedic assessment which, at its core, is really about clinical decision-making. Working in a hospital setting is all about knowing how to adapt what we do as massage therapists to fit the individual patient. It’s critical to be able to effectively take into account the patient’s chart, labs, and medical history and then use that information to determine how to best treat the client with the right type of massage therapy. Also, classes in teaching self-care to a client can empower clients so that they are not dependent on the therapist to relieve symptoms.

What advice would you offer other massage therapists looking to establish themselves in a health care setting?
Build relationships with the staff members working around you. Talk to your patient’s registered nurse or physician first. If you have a question about how massage therapy might affect a certain condition, always ask the staff. It shows that you are thinking clinically about the different treatments you can offer. And, after you work with the patient, connect with other members of the staff again. Let them know how you treated the patient and what the results were.  

How would you describe your work at the Penny George Institute compared to other settings you may have practiced?
Working as a massage therapist at the bedside of an inpatient hospital is a completely different world from working in an outpatient clinic, a private massage therapy practice or a spa. The patients are in this setting because of a health situation serious enough to require hospitalization. They may have just had a baby. Or, perhaps they had several vertebrae fused and they were unprepared for how painful it would be. They may be rehabilitating from a motorcycle crash that has left them paralyzed, or just had a tumor removed from a tissue that you didn't learn about in massage school. This in an environment of incessant call lights beeping, IV pumps and oximeter alarms going off, stress and worry so thick it rolls off the family members keeping watch. As a massage therapist in this setting, we walk humbly into this setting and offer them a brief respite from their trials. We remind them that feeling softer in the shoulders or neck or feet is possible, even in spite of their current situation. We suggest ways for them to keep and recall that feeling and encourage them to use those skills whenever they need them. And we are rewarded with the knowledge that even though compassionate, intentional touch may not provide a cure as the world defines it, it can bridge a divide and provide relief for another human being at their most vulnerable point, the point when they need it the most.
From your experience, what skills are expected of massage therapists practicing in a health care setting?
Because our notes go directly into the medical chart right next to the notes of doctors, nurses and other therapists, solid verbal and written communication skills are essential. The health care setting is very fast paced. Not only is being flexible and having the ability to roll with the punches important, so is being able to quickly build rapport with a patient or staff member. Being able to teach the patient things they can do on their own to reduce their pain, anxiety or nausea is crucial as well.  
What do you think the outlook is for massage therapists looking to practice in health care settings?
I believe the future is bright for massage therapists who are looking to work as members of a health care team. As the nation looks to reform health care, both from a delivery and regulatory standpoint, I think more emphasis will be placed on preventive and self-care techniques. Integrative health care strategies, particularly massage therapy, can and will play a key role in how the next generation views "health care" in general. Helping a patient experience what it is like for a group of muscles to relax, and then showing them the strategies to help keep those muscles relaxed empowers a patient. If these changes become reality, there will be more and more of a call for massage therapists who are trained to work within clinical health care settings, and those who can will find a setting so rewarding so as to consider it not just a job, but a career.


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