Crusader fingers unlicensed bodyworkers

Denise Caywood has too much time on her hands. The Tucson massage therapist has made it her mission to harass Steven Chen and his employees.

Chen runs Oriental Chi, a company with several mall locations where body workers offer frazzled shoppers a few minutes of blessed relief from the strains, stresses and pace of everyday life.

Caywood, according to a Nov. 25 Arizona Daily Star story, "has spent much of the past year exchanging e-mails with the massage board, the governor's office, the Tucson mayor's office and the Tucson Police Department." The righteous crusader is upset because a so-called "loophole" in the rules of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy permits Chen's employees and other body workers to practice their art without a license, providing they meet certain conditions.

In the section dealing with licensing massage therapists, the Arizona Revised Statutes language is clear: When the client is fully clothed, no license is needed. Nor is one needed if the client is clothed and the techniques employed are designed to affect "the human energy field." But for some practitioners of Western-style massage, body workers who practice Asian techniques and who do not require Arizona licensure may pose a competitive threat. That's easy to understand. But Caywood's assertion that "putting your hands on people" requires a license is flat-out wrong. (And silly, when you stop to think about it.)

Competence and licensure have little bearing on one another. All professions, regardless of the hurdles a practitioner must jump before acquiring "legitimacy," have their share of incompetents. Nurses give the wrong pills to patients; lawyers miss filing deadlines; doctors have been known to cut off the wrong limb.

An obsession with credentials and licenses does little to keep the public safe from snake-oil peddlers and charlatans. In the case of Caywood and her cohorts at the Arizona board, even a cursory peek at the group's minutes indicates a coterie of licensed massage therapists dedicated to keeping the profession free of harlots posing as masseuses. Unsatisfied with this Puritan task, the board goes further: It seeks to keep the public away from folks who may know what they are doing, but lack the proper certification from a board dedicated to "Protecting the Public's Health," a pronunciamento prominently displayed at the top of at least two of the board's published minutes.

It's comforting to know Robert Wilson, the board's deputy director/investigator, has the public's health in mind. As he told the Star, "The more training you have, the safer you are, and the more you can do for somebody." Pardon me, but this seems a clear case of self-serving balderdash (not to mention really bad logic).

The trouble with what Wilson said is it gives the false impression of making sense. But anyone who has spent much time playing in the fields of energy work can tell you all the training in the world is worthless if a practitioner doesn't "get it." And getting it has absolutely nothing to do with tests, certifications or licenses.

Part of getting it is knowing what to do for a particular client. In approaching Oriental Chi employees at Park Place Mall and demanding to see their state massage licenses, Caywood displayed her ignorance. Licensed, certified or even imprimatured--or not--no body worker in a mall setting is ever likely to do more than provide the most benign, generic service suitable for virtually anyone.

But if you are a massage therapist in a town overrun with therapists, and you've had to endure the expense of licensing and the work of passing an exam, the last thing you want to see is a bunch of nonlicensed body workers making people feel good in just a few minutes. And in a mall, no less.

It's unlikely Chen is willing to risk what is probably a profitable business by employing unqualified practitioners. On the contrary, he said he requires his workers to have completed a course of study in Oriental bodywork as well as continuing their education, the Star reported.

What it comes down to is a turf battle. People who start professional boards and promote licensing, certification and testing while demanding a fee before allowing others to join their ranks are often the ones most interested in inflating their status and protecting their profession from "upstarts" who may be just as competent (or more so), but haven't bowed to the folks who hold the keys to the kingdom.

Rather then spending her time e-mailing every possible person or agency that might help her shut down a company providing a needed service, or trolling the malls demanding to see unneeded licenses, Caywood might better spend her time focusing on her own practice. In the meantime, let those of us who don't see a need for any board to protect our health choose whom we allow to touch us.