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The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork has announced plans to offer a beta test of an advanced certification examination in April 2010. NCBTMB apparently anticipates that this test would be the foundation of a new certification credential.

ABMP recently shared with its members a request from the NCBTMB to solicit feedback regarding the proposed advanced certification. I received a handful of comments directly, ranging from general concern to disappointment with ABMP for supporting NCBTMB's efforts. My reason for distributing the survey to our members was to make sure our members (many of whom are NCBTMB certificants) had an opportunity to express their views regarding NCBTMB's plans, whether in support or opposition. Liz Langston, CAE, the director of exam development for NCBTMB, has been extremely helpful and gracious in interacting with our members, even those who were not in support of the initiative.

In announcing their intentions, NCBTMB stated:

NCBTMB's National Certification Exams have long represented the highest standard of excellence in the field, and with its Advanced Certification Examination, the organization plans to take the profession to the next level. National certification will continue to serve as the industry's foundation, with the new credential building upon its educational, experiential and ethical requirements.

I participated in the survey, and registered my views on the idea of an advanced certification. I am using this space to elaborate on those views.

I have little doubt that ABMP is not viewed as a steadfast friend of NCBTMB (and by extension, I am not either). We have had real concerns with a good portion of the organization's performance and actions through the years, and we have not hesitated to express those concerns.

What may come as a surprise to some is that I feel strongly that NCBTMB potentially should play an important role in the continuing development of the massage therapy profession.

I believe NCBTMB has made a mistake in how it has and continues to muddle the distinction between obtaining certification and licensure. Webster's defines certified as "recognized as having met special qualifications (as of a governmental agency or professional board) within a field." License is "a permission granted by competent authority to engage in a business or occupation or in an activity otherwise unlawful."

While the medical profession is not always a model in the eyes of our field, I find the following Q & A from the American Board of Medical Specialties quite helpful:

What Does it Mean if a Doctor is Board Certified?

Doctors who are board certified have participated in a voluntary process that involves evaluation of their knowledge and skills beyond what's required for them to become licensed physicians. The standards for board certification, such as the type of evaluation, and whether additional education and training are required, vary depending on the certifying board.

I am nationally certified through NCBTMB; I voluntarily applied to become so immediately upon receiving my massage school diploma. I had yet to perform my first paying massage! Can a doctor become board-certified without practicing? No. In the massage therapy profession, would it be more meaningful a distinction from "licensed," meaning permitted to practice, if the existing NCE credential had more robust requirements? Yes.

I don't think the massage & bodywork profession needs to establish a second level of certification. I think NCBTMB should revamp their existing certification program to truly make certification an indication of an individual's special qualifications; it should get out of the licensing exam business. ABMP Chairman Bob Benson and I articulated such a view in a visit to their headquarters in June 2008. We were told at that time that they had no intention of getting out of that business.

I appreciate that what Bob and I suggested would neither be easy nor painless for NCBTMB. However, I am writing about what I believe would best serve the massage therapy profession, not a particular organization. National Certification has been repurposed as a licensing examination, occasionally dressed up as denoting "excellence." Would advanced certification be characterized as "even more excellence"?

Building an advanced certification program that becomes essentially National Certification, Part 2 will only serve to compound an already flawed program. Consolidating their efforts into a single certification program that denotes distinction and acknowledges experience and achievement (and tests for that) is something I would willingly support.

In initiating the advanced certification effort, NCBTMB has made a productive step forward by soliciting feedback from a broad segment of the profession. In addition, they have lined up some impressive folks in the profession for a task force, including Sandy Fritz, Margaret Avery-Moon, and other well-qualified individuals. It is my hope that this robust group of experienced professionals will encourage NCBTMB to make some difficult decisions that will in the long run provide greater meaning and usefulness for its credentialing program, and in turn for the massage therapy profession.

I believe that NCBTMB has been hamstrung by a sense of urgency related to developing "something" in the realm of advanced certification. I don't know what an advanced certification should look like. But I have an idea about how NCBTMB should get there:

1. Wait. NCBTMB has sent mixed messages by thoughtfully soliciting feedback while at the same time announcing an initial exam date. Having an exam already scheduled gives the impression that the content and focus is already determined. If so, why ask for feedback? NCBTMB no doubt feels some pressure to move forward; however, the end result should define and drive the process. The field will support a thoughtful process and solid result, even if it takes longer.

2. Give the task force a clean sheet. This task force could do the most good by being allowed to look at NCBTMB's entire certification program, and determine whether a new certification paradigm should be established. When should certification be able to be attained (right out of school, after a set time, based on experience)? Should there be National Certification and a general Advanced Certification? Or one general certification? Certification in specialty areas or disciplines? Any or all of these options? These are important legitimate questions that these folks are well-qualified to tackle.

3. Follow the MTBOK's lead. NCBTMB has been a supporter of and participant in the Massage Therapy Body of Knowledge (MTBOK) project. The release of the MTBOK report in mid-2010 would be a logical resource for the aforementioned task force to utilize. This could be very helpful in supporting the task force analysis. Proceeding before the MTBOK task force completes it works seemingly undermines NCBTMB's support of MTBOK.

Invariably, when I comment on the actions of another organization in the field, I receive a few comments encouraging me to stick to my knitting. I understand that view, but this is my knitting, too. I am Nationally Certified, and I want it to mean something more than it does. I also want members of this field and the clients they serve to be able to differentiate between licensure and certification, ideally recognizing certification as meaning something distinctive. And I want our members and practitioners everywhere to flourish in a field where professional development is supported and encouraged. Logically.

I welcome your comments. If you choose to share your views with NCBTMB, they can be sent to