Is massage therapy a worthwhile benefit?

Nearly half (43 per cent) of plan members have submitted at least one claim for massage therapy in the past year, according to the 2016 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey.

The finding is leading some of the report’s advisory board members to ask whether employers should provide the benefit at all. One of them is Peter Gove, innovation leader of health management at Green Shield Canada. “Other interventions show much stronger medical evidence, yet are not covered,” he said, referring to exercise as an example. In comparison, there’s still relatively little scientific evidence backing the positive effects of massage therapy, according to the study.

“We know that this benefit has proven to be a popular one, with 43 per cent of members having said they used the benefit,” said Barbara Martinez, practice leader for benefits solutions and group benefits at Great-West Life Assurance Co. and a member of the advisory board, during the survey’s launch in Toronto on June 14. “While plan members are more likely to use massage therapy to treat a diagnosed or self-diagnosed injury, 50 per cent report this as their main reason, compared to 38 per cent who use massage mainly for relaxation or to relieve tension.”

Read: Should employers reduce massage coverage in their benefits plans?

Martinez added that age is a “major factor,” with younger employees more likely to use massage.

“These results caused considerable discussion in our advisory board meeting as to the value of benefits that don’t meet the traditional definition of medically necessary,” she said.

Still, with 38 per cent of employee respondents citing a desire to relax or relieve tension and around the same percentage (40 per cent) of plan members saying the workplace negatively affects their ability to manage stress, some say massage therapy can be very useful.

“So here we have plan members telling us that they’re using their plan to help them relax. Is that not a good thing?” asked advisory board member Anne Nicoll, vice-president of business development at Medavie Blue Cross.

Read: What is driving the rising demand for paramedical services?

Another member of the survey’s advisory board, Chris Bonnett, principal at H3 Consulting, argued that massage therapy is “a valued benefit for significant segments of the population.” The survey found respondents aged 55 to 64 were more likely to cite conditions or injuries (58 per cent) as their main reason for massages.

Art Babcock, senior vice-president at Aon Hewitt, stressed that ultimately, employers should have a strategy for creating measurable objectives and observing results when it comes to benefits. “Without that, it’s open season on benefits that do not meet the traditional definition of ‘medically necessary.’ Some plan sponsors may find it hard to draw a straight line between massages and a better work environment, in which case, why should their plan pay for it for everybody? It could be a choice that employees pay for with a health spending account.”

How do the 2016 results compare to related questions five years ago?

Sanofi’s 2011 survey noted that massage therapy was one of the fastest-growing benefits. But while 83 per cent of plan sponsors said they provided coverage for paramedical services, usage rates were just 49 per cent.

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Read more findings from the 2016 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey