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Ethics Violation, or Communication Breakdown?

This year I wrapped up five years of service on the North Carolina Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy. Anyone who has ever sat on a board will probably agree with me that disciplinary hearings involving massage therapists are one of the most stressful parts of that job. It was for me. I estimate that during my time on the Board, I had to sit through approximately fifty of them. It was very distressing to see my fellow massage therapists trying to defend themselves–and in a few cases, just outright admitting to the violation–whenever they were accused of something.

Nine times out of ten, the accusation was of a sexual nature. 99 times out of 100, it involved a male therapist. I’m dead certain there are female therapists out there performing sexual favors every day, but most men won’t come forward to complain about it. Go figure.

My question to myself at those hearings was always this: “Did this person have an intent to do something evil, or was this a communication breakdown or simple mistake that could have happened to you or me?”

If you’ve been practicing longer than a year or two, the chances are good that in spite of your best efforts, you have accidentally exposed a body part. Or you have said something that the instant it left your mouth, you thought “why did I say that?” The very first massage I ever gave, I accidentally touched the man’s penis. I went to tuck in the drape, and all I can say is there it was. He was supine on the table, his eyes were closed, and when my hand grazed it, I saw his eyebrows shoot up. I said “I’m sorry,” and carried on. If I had made a big deal out of it, I could have just made it worse than what it was.

If your only intent is to give a therapeutic massage, then your major obligation is not just about giving the massage; it is clear and direct client communication. This has come home to me again and again, and most recently when one of my friends was accused of a sexual violation. The case has not been settled yet; it hasn’t even been to court, but he has been crucified in the press and by a number of bloggers–none of whom were present in the room and have no idea what truly happened there, but I’ve been watching what amounts to a feeding frenzy by a bunch of sharks who are determined to hang him from the highest tree. He is apparently guilty until proven innocent. READ MORE...

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Comment by Laura Allen on January 17, 2012 at 9:31am

I regards to insurance, the liability insurance stops where criminal actions begin. They are here to defend you against someone accusing you of hurting them during a massage. They are not here to defend against people who get charged criminally with sexual activity.

Comment by Laura Allen on January 6, 2012 at 1:33pm

In this particular case, the therapist is being taken to court on criminal charges. The accusers have not yet reported him to the massage board.

Comment by Laura Allen on January 6, 2012 at 1:31pm

In the majority of disciplinary hearings I have sat through, the license was revoked. I'd say about 70% of the time. The other 30% of the time, the discipline has included imposing fines on people of up to 1000., plus the cost of the disciplinary hearing itself, which can run into hundreds of dollars between the transcriber's fee, attorney etc, plus being ordered to attend up to 24 extra hours of continuing education for renewal, on top of the 24 you're already obligated to have. The board sometimes ordered that to be completed within x time frame--sometimes as little as 3-6 months. Usually those would be extra ethics classes, but sometimes the board has ordered someone to attend A&P classes and even anger management classes. People have also been ordered to get alcohol assessments, counseling, etc. Some of them just pack it in and give up their license rather than jump through all the hoops.

Comment by Stacy on January 5, 2012 at 5:42am

Thanks for posting!

Comment by Linda LePelley, RN, NMT on January 1, 2012 at 11:22pm

Daniel, I would anticipate that civil or other charges might follow such accusations, especially if found guilty by the Board. I keep the pre-paid legal policy for any type of situation, not just work related. We can't foresee every possible problem, but we can prepare ourselves as much as reasonably possible.

Comment by Daniel Cohen on January 1, 2012 at 10:14pm

Linda, An administrative hearing is not court. Be sure they will cover. Also the professional insurance may not apply if there are sexual harassment charges. Insurance has many ins and outs that must be reviewed carefully. Teachers face this type of problem often. It was included in our Teachers' Education classes. Things like keeping the door open and never giving a student a ride are precautions you learn to follow. It is also part of HR training. Massage schools could spend more time on awareness training. Of course the environment for massage leaves you at greater risk. But a teacher or boss gives more incentive to fake charges because of what may be gained.

Comment by Linda LePelley, RN, NMT on December 31, 2011 at 6:23pm

How devastating! It is sad that a person's reputation and career can be so easily, (and dare I say, gleefully!) demolished by a single person's accusation. More often than ever before, it seems to me that an accused person is often the true victim. I suggest that everyone gets legal insurance. We of course have our practice insurance, but can we be sure it will pay if we were to be found guilty? I have a pre-paid legal plan that gives me help with any legal questions I have, writes letters and makes phone calls for any kind of legal matter, and if I were to need legal representation in court, provides 2 weeks worth, plus other stuff I can't remember off the top of my head. After a few years the weeks of court representation increases, too. I've been spending less than 30 bucks a month for a few years for the family plan, and it has been worth it just in the peace of mind it affords me. Last year when it turned out a certain insurance provider hadn't been taking care of business, they wrote him a letter and my money was returned without question. We can't be too careful. I'm pretty sure my intake form covers draping, but I'm going to review it right now to be positive. Thanks, Laura, for another informative post!

Comment by Daniel Cohen on December 31, 2011 at 12:14pm

Of the approximately 10 cases per year, how many had their licenses pulled?

Comment by Gordon J. Wallis on December 31, 2011 at 11:58am

Yea, very good article Laura..  Gosh you are talking about only one state.. I wonder how many therapists loose their license nation wide because of this?  And I feel very sorry for your friend.  Is it only one person accusing him?  If so, that's scary.  Considering how long he has been doing this kind of work.


Comment by Daniel Cohen on December 31, 2011 at 10:55am

An excellent article Laura. We not only need to be attuned to the body's response to injured tissue but also aware of nervous tension. This might be an indication of being uncomfortable with massage. Many of us do massage for workers in companies. Not only are you subject to the usual procedures for ethics but also Workers' Compensation laws and Labor Laws regarding harassment. Some states even recognize third party harassment. A charge or hearing under these laws will cause loss of job and possible future employment even with no charges elsewhere.

We need to be aware that the public may not share our own views. So communication is the only chance you have to make your intent clear. Thank you Laura for clearly stating your experience in a professional way. I am sure many MTs and potential MTs will learn from this.

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