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Musical Chairs


I recently received a press release from the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) and an email from its CEO Paul Lindamood, updating me on the progress of the National Certification for Advanced Practice (NCAP) exam. As you can see from its diagram above, the NCBTMB has demonstrated that it believes the NCAP will fit nicely in the career path for a massage therapist. This image reminds me of playing Candy Land as a kid; NCBTMB unfortunately has not made accommodations for Plumpy, Gloppy, or Gramma Nutt.

You may recall that I wrote a post on this subject a while back, when the initiative for “Advanced Certification” first was discussed. I am posting an update today, not to tell you I have changed my thinking, nor am I simply repeating my last post (okay, maybe liberally referencing it). I am writing this as a Nationally Certified practitioner, not as the organizational mouthpiece of ABMP.

First, full disclosure: I am not the world’s greatest massage therapist (she might be, or her, or maybe you). Nor am I the world’s busiest. My primary job in the massage field is helping practitioners, not clients. As a result my work is limited to my teenage sons and on occasion my wife (although I am far too delinquent on this account). However, I am proud of the fact that I took and passed the NCETM, and happy that I was able to recertify this year. I do look forward to having more time to work on family and friends (someday).

I am registered with the State of Colorado and NCBTMB-certified. And I take neither of these for granted. However, the advent of the NCAP will further emasculate the value of NCBTMB certification. Some may argue that NCBTMB certification has very little significance already since it became a commodity through mandatory implementation as a licensing exam in a number of states; it is hard to disagree with that sentiment. In my case, becoming certified was voluntary. The fact that my NCTM certification is being marginalized by its parent organization makes the situation even more ridiculous!

A fundamental concern with above graphic is that it implies there is one path to professional success, and it includes stops at certification/licensure, advanced certification, and specialty certification. And I am sure plenty of my colleagues would not view “Increased opportunities: integrative healthcare, conventional medicine, employers, third-party insurance” as destinations on their own paths.

In most professions, a certification regime is established to ensure credibility and provide differentiation. I can agree that the NCAP has the potential to do that. But how does the existing NCBTMB certification do so? There are 293,000 massage therapists in the United States; approximately 90,000 are NCBTMB certified. I recognize I am not special or unique; I am simply one in three, most of whom did not have a choice—they had to take it to get licensed to practice massage in their state. The advent of the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) has made licensure by examination even more routine. Not unimportant, mind you, just what it should be—important, yet not overstated. No one posts a copy of their driver’s license on the wall, do they?

In fact, the development of the MBLEx by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) has further exposed the inappropriate utilization of NCBTMB certification as a regulatory gatekeeper. Between the development of the MBLEx and now the NCAP, NCBTMB certification has become like the kid stuck without a seat when the music stops in musical chairs. And, sorry, trying to push the MBLEx out of its chair isn’t a valid strategy.

Rather than continuing to build onto its house, the NCBTMB needs to (once again) take a step back and talk to an architect. Massage and bodywork practitioners don’t have absolute, finite paths to success; there are different strategies and career paths that can be combined to meet one’s idea of success. And not all are mandatory, either.

Certification has value, and can be important and useful in the massage field. But not as currently constructed and planned by the NCBTMB. My wish would be to have ONE meaningful certification; the NCAP could be that, essentially replacing the “NCBTMB-certified” designation I now hold. The concept of NCAP is what NCBTMB certification should have been all along. I can even buy into specialty certifications as choices for those practitioners who wish to focus their work. But to state that meaningful professional development consists of National Certification and NCAP ultimately makes both less valuable.

The NCAP is not for me; I wouldn’t purport to call myself “advanced” in massage therapy. Even if I were, I would not pursue it under the current framework. I won’t endorse a system that is broken and will only become more confusing if NCAP is grafted on top of the existing NCBTMB certification. But I would gladly relinquish my “Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage” designation as part of a rethinking of the credentialing process.

Give us a single certification standard that means something; then you’ll have my support.