Between Science and Woo: My Hospital Adventure

I work in a little-bitty clinic, basically a storefront, filled with donated furniture, ugly carpeting, and a whole lot of love. It’s a casual kind of place. But recently I left work early wearing a suit and heels, to head to the biggest, fanciest, best-known hospital in town: The Cleveland Clinic.

Why was a very junior massage therapist from a very tiny organization visiting a hospital with its own zip code? (44195, I’m not making this up!) I was attending an informational session about their Healing Services program. While the program makes use of massage, it is not organized by massage therapists. Maybe that’s why they’ve managed to sidestep the ongoing battle in the massage world between the forces of Science and Woo.

On one hand, there are the folks who like to talk about evidence, efficacy, and therapeutic outcomes. These are often the same folks who push for massage in he world of healthcare. On the other side of the divide are the people who prefer to base their practice off of their own intuition and experience, and may or may not incorporate energy work into what they do. These folks are perfectly happy to get the results that they get, and aren’t necessarily concerned with whether or not they can chart their results objectively or pass peer review.

As massage therapists, we’re familiar with this dynamic. So what are the factors that allow one of the biggest names in healthcare to incorporate massage, Reiki, guided imagery, aromatherapy, meditation, Healing Touch, counseling, and a hodgepodge of other techniques into one coherent program?

The first is the distinction between Healing Services and other departments. When your work falls under “patient experience” and “spiritual care,” what’s the goal? That the patient feels cared for. In that context, there’s no doubt at all that each of these techniques can be equally valid, depending on the preferences of the patient.

The second is the question of billing. Massage and other offerings available through Healing Services, which are open to patients, families, and staff, are not billed for the way a rehabilitation-focused massage might be. The forms for notetaking are different, so a person offering Reiki, for example, isn’t limited to just checking a box labeled “emotional support.” This allows for greater freedom in modality while still tracking the results that matter most with in the context of the program.

The third has to do with money. The Cleveland Clinic has sufficient funding to offer these services at no charge, because it is only a small piece of what they do. When money is being exchanged for treatment, there are ethical questions about whether or not something  has been shown to have an effect. But in the model being used at the Clinic, the only important factor is the individual’s subjective experience. Given that reimbursement for services will soon be tied to positive patient experiences, this still makes financial sense.

I don’t know whether the various factions in the massage therapy community will manage to find a place of unity anytime in the future. But it is reassuring to know that there is a place where nurses, chaplains, and yes, massage therapists and energy workers of all kinds can come together and find a little patch of common ground. That it’s happening in such a prestigious place is an added bonus. Maybe if we take a step back from wanting our faction to be all things to all people, we can find the niche where we’re most effective, and learn to work together towards a healthier, happier world.

Kat Mayerovitch is a licensed massage therapist practicing in a nonprofit chronic pain management center in Cleveland, Ohio. She also works as a copywriter, volunteers like mad in local community development, and plays the ukulele. If you liked this, Kat writes more good stuff at LMT or Bust.