More than 100 remedial massage therapists in Canberra have had to work through their own ‘pain in the neck’ to establish if they can continue to provide an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Canberra and Region Therapist Network has sought clarification from ACT Health for more than a month after initially being told by the Prime Minister they would have to shut their doors.
Remedial massage therapist of more than 23 years, Lisa LaMaitre, who operates Therapy Masters in Civic, was told by her insurer she wouldn’t be able to operate once a mandatory shut down was announced. From this advice, Therapy Masters closed on March 23.
NSW regulations were saying remedial massage therapists could work, while Queensland therapists only received the all-clear to treat last week.
However, there was still no clarification on the issue from ACT Health.
“I know of a number of my colleagues have contacted ACT Health over the last four weeks, seeking clarification on remedial massage, and almost every interaction has resulted in conflicting advice being received,” Lisa said.
The initial direction from ACT Health on 9 April said it was OK for remedial massage therapists to work if “massage services are provided by or for allied health services such as remedial, sports and lymphatic massage”.
Further advice stated that massage therapists were not considered an allied health professional and as such can’t prescribe treatments or deliver them outside a treatment program prescribed by a health practitioner or allied health professional.
In short, remedial massage therapists could only work if their client had a referral from a doctor or a similar professional.
But since many of Canberra’s remedial massage therapists operate as sole traders with direct bookings from existing clients, Lisa said the advice from ACT Health remained unclear.
“In the industry, we perceive ourselves as allied health professionals. That’s the work we do. We are in the same group as osteopaths and physiotherapists, but the state and federal governments see us as providing personal services,” Lisa told Region Media.
“This is also part of the shortcomings of the industry in that we don’t have one peak body. Four of the massage associations have banded together to seek clarification for the industry as a whole, but in the same week the associations sent an email announcing ACT therapists could return to work, the ACT Health directive said that our clients needed a referral.
“As you can appreciate, therapists in Canberra have been frustrated and sick of waiting for clear direction.”
Region Media also sought advice from ACT Health on the issue, with a spokesperson for Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith saying “ACT residents seeking therapeutic and remedial massage therapy services are not required to obtain a referral to these services, provided they are seeking treatment of a specific health condition.
“ACT massage therapists that provide services on a therapeutic or remedial basis where a client is being treated for a particular health condition are currently permitted to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Patients are not required to obtain a referral or treatment plan in order to access therapeutic massage services,” the spokesperson said.
The clarification from ACT Health also said the treatment must provide a therapeutic or remedial benefit to the client, such as to alleviate chronic neck or joint pain or reduce chemotherapy-related nausea. Beauty salons and spas are not permitted to operate at this time.
Lisa said this was the clearest advice they had received so far but had contradicted what they had initially been told. Shadow MLA Mark Parton has also raised the issue with ACT Health on behalf of remedial massage therapists.
“At least 10 of us in a Facebook group of more than 100 massage therapists have received conflicting advice from ACT Health at different times,” Lisa said.
“The issue is that remedial massage falls in the gap. We’re not beauty therapy, we’re not hairdressers or a barbershop and we’re definitely not a massage parlour.
“With our training and expertise, we sit with our allied health colleagues, but the government doesn’t see us that way because we don’t necessarily have a bachelor’s degree as part of our qualification. We are also ineligible for an AHPRA number or Medicare provider number.
“If we had those things, then we’d be seen as allied health professionals.”
Lisa said she will delay the reopening of her business as she has underlying health conditions.
In the meantime, she will add her expertise to a technical advisory committee, overseen by SkillsIQ, that is currently reviewing the national curriculum for massage therapy.
“By improving the national standards in the training of massage therapy in Australia, we will start to fill some of the gaps in the Australian massage industry that the pandemic has brought to light. I was honoured to make it on to the panel and the review couldn’t be happening at a more vital time in our industry,” Lisa said.