Where We Work is Not Who We Are

The Life-Enhancing Nature of Our Touch

By Cal Cates
[Massage Therapy as Health Care]

For years, many in our profession have patted me on the head as I have advocated for an elevated position for massage therapy and massage therapists. They tell me, “Not all massage therapists want to be health-care providers.”

I agree that many massage therapists (myself included) don’t want to deal with insurance and billing, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I think that’s “medical massage,” if I understand the most-used definition. What I’m talking about is mostly an inside job, and it’s not about how we get paid.

Massage therapy is an admittedly diverse discipline. So many techniques. So many perspectives. That said, we would help ourselves greatly by choosing to loosen our attachment to our personal specialness; or, at the very least, to lessen the distance we imagine it puts between us and “other” therapists. If we could do this, we’d likely achieve a greater understanding that would allow us to speak more as one.

One of the most damaging myths of the “differences” in massage therapy lies in the idea that where we work defines the type (and value) of the work we do. Many therapists who work in spas, gyms, and health clubs buy into this myth—and so do many others. Some therapists, who work in “more clinical settings” or who do “ortho” or myofascial, puff up and behave as though these are different worlds. And the lie is held up by all sides.

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement posits that “The fundamental purpose of health care is to enhance quality of life by enhancing health.”1 If we asked massage therapists what they think they’re doing when they’re doing what they do, we’d probably hear all kinds of things about fascia and trigger points and local blood flow and tissue repair, but I’ll pay you cash money if you can find a massage therapist who would disagree with the assertion that they are “enhancing quality of life.”

The list of hopes with which our clients arrive on our tables is as varied and lengthy as what you’d hear from therapists about what they think they’re doing. Less pain, better mobility, companionship, care, support, education, time “away.” And this is what we provide. The person who receives these things from our care is the only person who can tell you how valuable they are. These things all enhance quality of life and health, whether the person we’re touching is in a dying process, a state of serious illness, or dealing with tendinitis.

Our discipline is one of the oldest in medicine. It has developed organically over thousands of years. The nature of its consumption has developed in a similarly organic way. Massage therapy consumers go where their friends tell them to go. They go where their friend’s daughter is a massage therapist. They go to the local massage school clinic because it’s $35 and that allows them to get massage more often. Maybe the only massage they get is at the chiropractor “because it’s right there.” If there’s a franchise down the street and their doctor suggests, “Go get a massage,” they go down the street. Massage is massage to most consumers, certainly to new ones.

Our profession needs to up its game in so many ways. Very few of us have a solid grasp on the nonmechanical, communication-centered aspects of truly providing patient-centered, collaborative health care. We all need to seriously strengthen that aspect before we can really take our place among our allied health-care professional colleagues, but let’s stop selling the quality of life-enhancing nature of our work short, no matter where we practice. We all touch. We all make it easier for our clients to be in their bodies. There is value across the board.

We’re all providing health care. It’s not a dirty word. It’s not a smug badge of honor reserved for “the most specialized” of us. It’s a fact.


1. Leonard Berry, “Reclaiming Health Care’s Fundamental Purpose,” Institute for Healthcare Improvement Blog, January 10, 2018, accessed August 2020, www.ihi.org/communities/blogs/reclaiming-health-care-s-fundamental-purpose#.

Cal Cates is an educator, writer, and speaker on topics ranging from massage therapy in the hospital setting to end of life care and massage therapy policy and regulation. A founding director of the Society for Oncology Massage from 2007–2014 and current executive director and founder of Healwell (www.healwell.org), Cates works within and beyond the massage therapy community to elevate the level of practice and integration of massage overall and in health care specifically. Cates also is the co-creator of the podcast Massage Therapy Without Borders.