Apr 24 2015

Perceptions and benefits of, and barriers to, degree-based education for massage therapy

Smith, Donna

Within New Zealand, the practice of massage therapy for health and wellness is part of the growing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) industry and is a popular treatment for a wide range of health conditions. Over the last 20 to 30 years, massage therapists have taken some steps in the process of professionalisation for the purpose of creating legitimacy and acceptance as a serious health care option. However, to date, the practice of massage therapy within New Zealand is unregulated, there is variation in education and practice standards, and massage therapists are still seeking credibility. Higher education is one means to recognition and professional expertise, and has been central in the development of many CAM occupations. A bachelor’s degree for massage therapists was first available in New Zealand in 2002, but has not been embraced by many within the massage therapy industry and reasons for this stance are unknown.
The purpose of this research was to investigate the range of perceptions and attitudes toward degree-based education across the stakeholder groups within the massage therapy industry, namely: massage educators; practicing massage therapists; and massage therapy students. More specifically, the perceived necessity of degree-based education for the practice and growth of massage therapy, and the benefits and barriers to degree-based education, were explored. An interpretive, two phase, sequential, mixed methods approach was used. First an online survey (n=128) was conducted with stakeholder groups. The second phase of the research used semi-structured interviews to further explore participants’ views (n=20).

The survey findings indicated a nearly equal amount of agreement (45.6%) and disagreement (40.1%) for degree-based education being essential for massage therapists practicing in New Zealand. Many (84.8%) disagreed that a bachelor’s degree in massage therapy should be the minimum qualification to practice as a relaxation massage therapist, but nearly half of participants (49.6%) agreed that a bachelor’s degree in massage therapy should be the minimum qualification to practice as a therapeutic/clinical rehabilitation massage therapist. There was more agreement (54.7%) than disagreement (25.8%) that degree-based education was essential for the growth of the massage therapy industry. The perceived benefits of a massage degree were: elevating standards, building expertise, increasing research capability, providing individual and collective benefits and new opportunities, improving the image of massage therapy, and building credibility. The perceived barriers to a massage degree included: accessibility issues such as time, location, and finances; and perceptions of a degree, namely, a lack of knowledge, and the view that a degree was unnecessary or restrictive. Strategies including building a strong massage therapy identity and profile, regulation, and making degree-based education accessible, were suggested for moving the massage therapy industry towards professional recognition. Findings were used to build a conceptual model which shows a coalition is needed between degree-based education and a strong professional association to advance the massage therapy industry if credibility, best practice, and a professional identity are to be achieved.

This thesis provides an informative insight into the factors that contribute to resistance to, and engagement in, degree-based education and can guide the next phase of massage therapy development within New Zealand. Findings make an original contribution to the literature on massage therapy and provide direction for future studies. The thesis has also highlighted the need for clarification of the identity of massage therapists, and the necessity to manage diversity within this occupational group if the benefits of higher educational standards and practice are to be realised as a collective


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