Massage therapists association sees spike in injury complaints, calls for stronger regulations

One of the organizations that represents massage therapists in Manitoba is calling for stronger regulation of the industry after a spike in the number of injury complaints by clients.

Currently no restriction in Manitoba on who can call themselves a 'massage therapist'

The Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba fielded complaints from people who have been injured by people calling themselves massage therapists. However, the association says without regulation, there isn't much it can do. (Shutterstock/Prostock-studio)

One of the organizations that represents massage therapists in Manitoba is calling for stronger regulation of the industry after a spike in the number of injury complaints by clients.

The Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba said in 2016, five injury complaints were considered serious enough for a formal investigation. The number doubled to 10 in 2017. So far in 2018, there have been seven complaints.

Two of the most recent complaints involved a physical injury and a psychological injury, according to Tricia Weidenbacher, incoming managing director of the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba.

"Unfortunately those people that they had gone to see were not fully qualified," said Weidenbacher.

"[The complainants] were actually surprised to learn that there was no regulation governing this and they were surprised that there was nowhere really that they could turn to address their complaint. [The people they went to for therapy] were not our members — we could not do anything about it."

Tricia Weidenbacher is the incoming managing director of the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Weidenbacher said while therapists must have gone through the national standard of a two-year, or 2,200-hour course in order to become members of the association, there's nothing stopping anyone from calling themselves a massage therapist in Manitoba.

"It's technically not illegal to hang a shingle on your clinic wall and say you're a massage therapist," she said.

"It's confusing for the public all around. If they go to see somebody for massage therapy, are they going to be seeing somebody who's fully qualified or not, if they are still using that title without the requisite education?"

It also means, she said, there is no recourse or body to complain to should a patient be injured during treatment by someone who is not registered with a provincial organization.

Online ad draws concern 

Weidenbacher said the association became especially concerned after an ad appeared on social media claiming students could become massage therapists in just 11 months through correspondence classes.

"We were concerned because this misleading. To use the term 'massage therapist,' the nationally accepted minimum is to have the two years," said Weidenbacher.

"Our concern is that without the two years of education, they might not have the technical know-how, the background in how to deal with the boundaries issues and the ethics issues that have come up."

The correspondence course though University College of the North was to be run in conjunction with Winnipeg's Wellington College. 

When CBC News asked UCN about the course, a spokesperson said it had been cancelled. However, an ad promoting the course still appeared on the college's Facebook page on Friday. 

The Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba became concerned after an ad claiming students could train to become massage therapists in 11 months. (University College of the North)

Wellington College president Randy Ellingson said the intent of the course was not to certify someone as a massage therapist after 11 months, but to set the groundwork for students who wish to continue on to the advanced course. 

"The intent always would be a basic relaxation program," said Ellingson, describing the UCN ad as a misunderstanding. He said talks between UCN and Wellington College about the program are ongoing.

Ellingson said the college offers a basic one-year relaxation massage course as a prerequisite for an advanced massage therapist course, which takes two years to complete.

He said the college has always made it clear to students that the one-year course does not make those who complete it a massage therapist.

"The college has always taken the position ... that anyone who is completing the first year of studies is a basic massage practitioner, but not a massage therapist," he said.

"Students have to sign off that they will not promote themselves in any way as a massage therapist until they have completed the full two-year program or the advanced level of studies."

But he said some associations will recognize people who only complete the first year.

"Again, in Manitoba, from a legal point of view, there is nothing stopping anybody from going down to Coles and getting a book on massage and calling themselves a massage therapist," said Ellingson.

Only regulated in 4 provinces 

Massage therapy is only recognized as a regulated profession in four provinces in Canada — British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and New Brunswick.

In Alberta, work is underway to regulate the industry. In Saskatchewan, massage therapists have spent more than 15 years campaigning for regulation.

The Massage Therapist Association of Saskatchewan recently called on people to buy memberships to both the Saskatchewan Party and the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party and vote for leadership candidates who best support the provincial association and its goals.

The Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance has been pushing for countrywide regulation.

"Ultimately it's public protection, is what the regulation does in our regulated jurisdictions," CMTA president Krystin Bokalo said.

She said the organization is helping groups in a number of other provinces — like Alberta and Saskatchewan — prepare for regulation.

"I think in general you are concerned about public protection," she said.

"By seeing more injuries from patients who have received a massage from someone who is not adequately trained, of course it's an area of concern across the board. And that's why regulation is ultimately a great way to minimize that."

Do your research 

Until that happens, Weidenbacher suggests people do their research before getting a massage.

"We definitely would like them to ask the person that you're going to see, 'Are you a graduate of a recognized 2,200-hour or two-year program [and] do you have the training that will be necessary to treat the concern that I have?'"

Weidenbacher said the Manitoba organization is working with the province to regulate massage therapy, but it could take three years before the legislation is reviewed by the province. 

The province said there are 19 self-regulating professions that will transition to the Regulated Health Professions Act.

"The Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba has been encouraged to begin work towards developing a policy draft of its regulations, with the government's goal being to bring their profession under the Act in about three years," a government spokesperson told CBC News on Friday.