Assessment And Reading Your Patient

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had this happen. 

That person comes in, and as you try to have a chat with them and do an assessment, they’re looking at either the clock on the wall or their watch. 

They give you that look of disdain and just want you to let them get on the table. 

They are basically coming in with an expectation that they booked an hour and expect a FULL hour on the table. 

Well…not so fast, there eager beaver!

I wish I could say experiences like this were isolated incidents, but sadly this happens all too often. 

So, what do WE do and how do WE handle this?

Reading Your Patient

The idea for this blog post stems from a Facebook discussion (why do I keep getting ideas from these?). 

Someone commented that assessment is essential, but hands-on is what they’re paying for. I would say this is true in some instances but not all. 

This is most likely the case in a spa environment. I should preface this by saying I have absolutely no experience working in a spa but have been a customer. When someone is going to a spa for a strictly relaxation massage, and nothing stands out on their intake form that could be a red flag (I’m not sure, do spa’s check for those things?), then by all means, the person should get an hour on the table within reason. 

However, if you’re working in a clinical setting, the rules change. 

Doing some sort of assessment is a necessary part of treatment, and we are responsible for doing this. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bunch of orthopedic tests, it can simply be a conversation, but it’s still necessary. 

This is part of our responsibility as healthcare practitioners, and it is part of what we should do to protect the public. It’s one of the things that differentiates healthcare from a spa setting. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with working in a spa setting and working on strictly relaxation massages. I’m just saying there is a difference, and that difference needs to be taken seriously. And yes, there are people who come into clinics for a relaxation massage, but there should still be some aspect of an assessment. 

Let me lay out a little scenario for you. 

You and I work together with a bunch of other Massage Therapists in a clinical setting. For example, I work with a patient who had been in a car accident for several weeks but never really do any kind of assessment because the patient just wants to get on the table. 

When they try to book their next appointment, I’m full but you have a spot open the following week they can book, so they jump at the opening. 

When they come in you start doing your assessment (cause you’re a rockstar at it) and the patient gets really annoyed because they want to get on the table. 

Then you end the treatment about five minutes early so you can go over some movement and homecare. 

This makes the patient even angrier because they want that entire hour of massage. 

They leave the clinic infuriated and call your regulatory body and file a complaint against you because of your treatment. Then, because their responsibility is to protect the public, the regulatory body HAS to investigate. So you get the dreaded phone call from them and have to talk to investigators over the next month, all while being worried you’ve done something wrong, and your career is in jeopardy. 

Believe it or not, this has happened, and fortunately, it didn’t go anywhere. 

Could you imagine this happening to you? 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have some patients that I’ve seen for years where it’s a quick conversation and they’re coming in for the usual thing and they say: 

“just the usual thing.” 

I’ll simply ask:

 “nothing new going on?”

This comes after years of seeing the person and having an excellent therapeutic relationship with them, all the while knowing at other times they open up and tell me something new is going on, and that trust is built with them. 

With this is the ability to read your patient. 

This is an important skill to develop and is crucial to building a good therapeutic relationship. 

There may be times when that person who has been in a car accident comes in and is just dealing with too much that day, where the best decision is to get them on the table to help deal with the stress they’re dealing with. However, the next week they come in, their mood is better, their body language has changed, so you can do more assessment and homecare. The ability to read what is going on with someone takes time to develop. Understanding that person’s body language, what they say to you as soon as they walk into your treatment room, and the look on their face as they talk can all be clues as to how today’s treatment will progress. 

However, we cannot take the approach that everyone who comes in is going to get their full hour on the table because we have a responsibility to help these people to the full capacity of our ability. Let’s face it; you’re better than that!

Culture Change

The example we used above probably happens more often than we’d like to admit.

I mean I doubt people are getting reported to their regulatory bodies on a regular basis for doing an assessment, but the patient’s expectation that they should be able to come in and get right on the table is likely quite common.

While this can be partially the patient’s issue, I think we also have to look at ourselves. This isn’t an expectation in the other MSK professions, so why would it be in ours?

If this is commonplace it’s because we have allowed it to happen as a profession.

To truly be accepted as a healthcare profession we must use the tools we have to fullest of our potential in order for the profession to step forward. Quite simply, if it is commonplace where patients expect nothing but purely passive treatment, a culture change is necessary.

And that starts with each of us. We can sit back and blame schools, regulatory bodies, and associations (don’t get me wrong they play a role here too) but the only way we can make this shift is by each of us making this change (if we haven’t already) and OUR patients expecting something different when they come in for treatment. 

The greatest way we can influence a culture change is by starting with ourselves. When other therapists see us doing it, hopefully it will influence them to change. More importantly if a patient is booking in and expects assessment, treatment, homecare because that’s the norm, it’s also what they will expect when they see other therapists.

As Ghandi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. For us: “Be the change you wish to see in the profession”.


Articles Of The Week August 1, 2021


We all know how important self-care is. This is a great interview with some great tips from a fellow Massage Therapist that you could recommend to a patient, or maybe even use yourself.

Women In Wellness: Beret Loncar Of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage Therapy On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing – Beret Loncar

Part of what I love about this post is how it is challenging an outdated way of treating someone (with an outdated narrative). But also I love that it is encouraging questioning professionals and what they do, in a respectful manner.

Thoracic Rings And Integrated Systems: Paleolithic Or Pathfinding? – Greg Lehman

Musculoskeletal conditions make up a large part of the cost on healthcare. Great to see that more attention is being paid to these conditions so that we might collectively treat it much better.

New report aims to make musculoskeletal health a global priority – Vivienne Reiner

I love analogies! This is a great analogy of how we can better serve our patients when they come to see us (which we should all be striving to do).

Patient Centred Care Isn’t A Self Serve Buffet – Taylor Laviolett & Jocelyn Kirton

Ohhhh biases, don’t we LOVE them? I know I love mine! On our most recent podcast we talked about how our beliefs can actually create our identity, but it’s really important to challenge any of our beliefs so we can grow as practitioners and this article helps show us why.

Why trying to prove yourself wrong is the key to being right – Thinking Is Power

Applying The Biopsychosocial Model In Clinical Practice


The biopsychosocial (BPS) model is one of those things you probably feel like you should be doing but maybe don’t know exactly how or you don’t have the skills? There does seem to be a fair amount of uncertainty and a bit of anxiety associated with the BPS model HERE and even the papers that discuss it rarely seem to actually define it!

This take on the Dan Ariely “big data” quote sums it up quite nicely (kudos to the author!)

Biopsychosocial management of back pain

Is like teenage sex;

Everybody talks about it;

Nobody really knows how to do it;

Everyone thinks everyone is doing it;

So everybody claims to be doing it.

But maybe we don’t need to FULLY define or understand the BPS to start to implement it in some way. The first thing we need to do is actually know MORE about it. I was told recently that the BPS model is “old and we should move on” in a Twitter discussion. A little bit further into the discussion, it turned out the other party had not read much about it, I think this happens a lot. We all seem to have our own interpretations around what BPS is and is not, so this is my attempt!

What Is It?


There seem to be two main perspectives that are summed up in these quite differing quotes:

“The centre of interest in biopsychosocial model is not the disease but a sick individual”  – Havelka  

 “The Biopsychosocial model was first conceptualised by George Engel in 1977, suggesting that to understand a person’s medical condition it is not simply the biological factors to consider, but also the psychological and social factors” Physiopedia

The first is focused more on the person we are treating and the second is more focused on the condition or problem, so no wonder we have a bunch of confusion and NEITHER really give much guidance about what to do next.

One of the perspectives that I feel gets lost in some views of the BPS model is the focus on the ‘humanisation’ of healthcare which is a feature of Engel’s writing. To understand the biopsychosocial model we also have to understand why we needed it in the first place and this was to come away from the reduction of healthcare to pathology and numbers that was the biomedical model.

Isn’t it fascinating we now quantify the success of a BPS approach simply by an outcome measure!?

Philosophy Of Care And Person Focus


Maybe this is the real spirit of the BPS? A ‘philosophy of care’ and a person focus.

The cool thing is it does not require extensive training to implement, instead, it simply requires us to appreciate there is another person who is more than a disc or a tendon or whatever issue they have. They also will have a history and experiences that shape their emotions, perspectives and ultimately behaviours.

This for me is summed up nicely in this quote.

“Look at the world through the patients eyes and walk through the world in the patients shoes” –   

 This quote from Joanne Bourke also sums up how we can focus more on the pain than the person who has it.

Pain’, rather than a person-in-pain, is given agency. A pain-event always belongs to the individual’s life; it is a part of her life story”  

When it comes to the human side of the BPS perhaps we can get stuck on the idea that everything we do has to result in a better outcome e.g. a change in pain. So this interaction is measured and judged via change in pain, empathy is measured via change in pain, you get the idea. This is exactly the positivist/empirical perspective Engel seemed to be arguing against, reducing everything to a hyperfocus on the problem and then measuring its change! We should be being aware of how we interact NOT just to get a better outcome measure but also because it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO!

Evidence-based medicine is important but not at the expense of a person. We really need to zoom out to the whole often rather than separating into smaller parts and descending DOWN Engel’s hierarchy of systems.

The aspect of the BPS model that is probably most important is our own self-reflection on how we think, act and interact but I have rarely seen this discussed. Just reflecting on how we communicate or care for the other party or conduct ourselves is enormously valuable.

The thing is that if we want the BPS to be an effective treatment tool then it probably requires the human aspect that is being discussed here. Many psychosocial factors that relate to pain require changes in behaviour. These changes also require trust and belief in what we are saying and this can be tough when it is contrary to all the other concepts and ideas around pain that people get exposed to.

There are a number of points that we can appreciate to implement a more person-focused version of the BPS model that is NOT directly treatment-focused but might have an effect on the process.

  • Having pain can affect our emotions as much as our emotions might affect pain. It is a BI-DIRECTIONAL model.
  • Socioeconomic status and health literacy directly affect the entire therapeutic process
  • Appreciate how beliefs are in part formed at a societal level and this can make them pretty sticky. They often don’t simply change in a session
  • Having pain is HARD and can limit motivation and belief in recovery
  • This person may have had to tell their story multiple times and this can be very frustrating
  • A constant search for the answer can be frustrating and tiring. Modern medicine can paint the picture there is one to be found
  • Uncertainty and the worry it brings makes people feel worse. Not just their pain but also their well being
  • Hope, motivation, optimism and instilling confidence are important not just for pain but also for LIFE and the person

None of these things are treatments but do help us understand the person and their levels of engagement, optimism and outlook for the future. The appreciation of these points also does not require a huge amount of training to implement.

Causes And Treatment Focus


A more traditional diagnostic and treatment-focused use of the BPS seems to be the most popular way it is interpreted and implemented and perhaps this can cause a bunch of issues for both clinicians and patients. To treat thing’s specifically the thought is we have to kind of know what the problem IS first and we can get hyper-focused on finding the CAUSE of the problem, but now we have way more potential problems across lots more areas to confuse us! Sticking to traditional pathologies can be hard enough and this is without having to be an expert in other fields too!

I think there is a case that we could see this as a biomedical application of the BPS as we could treat multiple BPS ‘factors’ WITHOUT actually treating the person in the spirit of the BPS and with a focus on person-centred care. A real aim would be to successfully implement a person AND pain-focused model.  Many of the factors we need to identify to implement a pain-focused model actually need the person-centred model to make them work anyway. Without a good therapeutic relationship and trust and rapport, how do we get people to tell us the information we need? How do we help implement the behaviour changes that are often required? The simple answer is we don’t.

Triggers Not Causes


Maybe a better way to see this all would be factors/behaviours that TRIGGER pain not always viewing it through a causation lens. Many things might trigger, exacerbate or modulate a painful state. Is this semantics? Potentially, but maybe less focus on CAUSE might take the pressure off clinicians to pinpoint a cause and does not feed people’s desire to find the one thing that they need to fix their pain. We might swap disc/nerve/alignment for stress/sleep/job and a triggers perspective may help people make sense of their pain situation rather than search for the cure or fix it in the same way that can often prove frustrating and demoralizing.

As we can see HERE 9, yes 9 psychological factors were identified as being involved with rotator cuff tendinopathy pain, function and quality of life. No wonder a BPS find and fix it model is seriously daunting for most clinicians.

A good analogy might be that of a cut that is grumbling away in the background. Sometimes I am unaware of it, others it is giving a slight twinge. But get something in it that irritates it and it’s a whole other story. This added element has interacted with the cut and triggered a response. Without the cut it might not have done so perhaps on its own we might not see it as a casual element. There is sometimes a danger we simply swap biomechanical impairments for psychosocial ones.

The interaction of BPS factors is inherently messy. Humans are a complex web of interrelating systems that display non-linear responses between things acting on the system and the responses it makes. This can mean we could have huge changes in a variable such as stress but only minor changes in how it affects a target variable such as pain. We also might target one variable, that may not change significantly, but another mediating variable change and this changes a target variable. This may be different to the sometimes linear approaches that we can see in research and clinical models that involve a primary outcome measure and intervention.

If we approach the BPS model as a simple view of linear causation and impairment fixing this kind of goes straight back to a biomedical perspective.


Positives Not Negatives?


There are positives and negatives to this messy non-linearity of the BPS with treatment. Positive in that treatments can have wide-ranging effects across many variables and the negative that they also might not! Exercise can have implications for general health, mental health and pain through a whole bunch of different mediating variables. One way to start to approach the BPS model is not in trying to fix an impairment but to improve aspects we know are beneficial and may provide an overall effect. This would fit with Antonoskys salutogenic model of focusing on wellness rather than illness.

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Perhaps an issue is we now see it as “just do some exercise” and the person will be ok.

Exercise ‘works’ is a common perspective but this really does not tell the story of the data. It is not so much if it ‘works’ at a population level but how much effect does it have for this person in front of me. For all this potential to have wide-ranging effects we still don’t see dramatic benefits in the research and often clinically too on the outcome measure of pain. Maybe this is because we expect exercise to automatically transfer to whatever the issues are? Effects on strength, sleep, mental health and ultimately pain are all potential effects/mediators that we see in the research base but we are not GUARANTEED these effects. This paper found HERE found that strength and power scores did not make people feel automatically ready to return to play. Although physical conditioning MIGHT make people FEEL mentally stronger it is not an automatic and linear relationship.

Summing Up


We probably need a bit of both perspectives to make things work effectively.

If we put this into context, firstly we need to consider the effects we might want from exercise based on finding out more about the person we are working with. Do we want to improve health? Wellbeing? Function? Exposure? We might have to set up exercise in some different ways to achieve these different aims. Secondly, our deeper knowledge of this person and their journey might help us frame, explain and implement the exercise in some different ways that could have a better potential to have the desired effect.

If a BPS approach just ends up in do some exercise because it CAN have wide-ranging effects I think we have lost sight of what the BPS just might be!


Learn How Volunteering Can Benefit Your Career

The phone in the clinic rings from a number you’ve never seen before. 

You answer, assuming it’s someone looking to book in for an appointment, and then you hear the same pitch you’ve heard a thousand times: 

“Would you be willing to donate your time, or a gift certificate to our charity, or upcoming cause”? 

We’ve all had those calls, and usually, the person on the other end has the best of intentions, and it’s usually a good cause. 

However, with many requests per year coming in, at what point do you say no, and at what point is volunteering your time worth it?

This is certainly an individual decision that you have to make, but I think there’s value in volunteering your time, especially if you’re new in practice. 

Is Volunteering Worth It?

I should preface this by letting you know my bias to this is yes; however, it should be done selectively. 

I would not be where I am in my career(s) today if it wasn’t for volunteering, and all the volunteer work I’ve done has lent itself to each of my careers. 

For those of you who may be new to this blog, in addition to being an RMT, I’m also a full-time firefighter, so I’m fortunate to have two great careers. 

However, I didn’t always have both as a career. 

I spent 16 years as a volunteer firefighter before getting hired full-time last year with my present department. 

The cool thing is that much of the experience I gained as a volunteer not only helped me get the career job, it’s also been pivotal in my career as an RMT and continues to be. 

Back in 2009 when I was still a student, I knew I wanted to be involved in sport as a therapist, so I approached our local Junior A hockey club and had a chat with their head Athletic Therapist to see if I could come in and volunteer some time with them to get some experience as a student. 

When I told him my background as a first-aid guy and firefighter, he looked at me and said, “Oh so you’ve seen some stuff!” and then invited me to come and start at the next game. 

So, volunteer experience in one area helped me get my foot in the door to another part of my career that still serves me today. 

Another thing that happened was back in 2010, our regulatory body came out and put the rule in place that every RMT in British Columbia had to be certified in First Aid to maintain their license. 

It was also around that time that my fire chief approached me and wanted me to become one of the First Responder instructors for the department. As a result, I became a Red Cross First Aid instructor and have taught First Aid and First Responder courses to RMT’s and Athletic Therapists all across BC. This makes up a pretty big part of my brand and business today, and I have even been fortunate enough to teach courses to the Vancouver Whitecaps medical staff. 

When I look at the seven years I spent with that Junior Hockey team, while it wasn’t a paid position, there were several other ways in which it paid off. 

The team chiropractor became a referral source for me in the clinic for the following ten years. In fact, I can remember when I first graduated, there were weeks where half of the people who came to see me were referrals from him. 

Many of the staff members would also come to see me, refer friends and family to me, and some still come and see me today. 

This volunteer work also helped establish me in the community as a “sports therapy” guy, and many patients over the years came to see me because of that reputation. 

During my time with the team, I was fortunate enough also to mentor some Athletic Therapy and Kinesiology students who were getting their practicum hours. Many of those connections are still in place today and have helped me become known as a First Responder instructor in the Athletic Therapy community because of those students. 

One student even convinced the clinic he was working at to contact me and hire me to work in their clinic when they were looking for an RMT, and I spent six years working at that clinic. 

Funny enough, one of those students went on to be a chiropractor and just recently contacted me wanting to refer some of his patients who were moving to this area. 

Once again this volunteer experience lead into more opportunities. 

Because of the experience I gained working there, this was my foot in the door to get hired by Hockey Canada, and have been able to work and travel with them over the past six years. 

As a result of working with them and the connections I’ve made with the other healthcare professionals, this has opened up other sports opportunities. 

One of the Physio’s brought me in to do some work with rowing Canada. One of the doctors recently brought me in to be a “biosecurity officer” for the FIBA Basketball Olympic trials. In addition, this has also given me the opportunity to travel to places like Russia and Slovakia that I would not have gotten otherwise. 

Now it’s also important to mention that while volunteering has given me many opportunities, a crucial part of this is also building relationships with people along the way. 

This is an important aspect of any part of our business, whether you’re volunteering or not. I was exposed to many people who later gave me opportunities because of the relationship I built with them through volunteering. 

Here is a bit of an overview of how volunteering has lead to more opportunities within each of my careers.



The Professional Side

This blog is one of the professional volunteer things I do. 

In the last few years, writing and promoting this blog has led to opportunities where I profit off it by teaching courses. However, it was strictly a volunteer project for many years and a chance for me to learn more about research and our profession. 

But, it led me to sit on the board of directors of the RMTBC for five years, which again was another great learning opportunity. 

While I’m a big proponent for volunteering, I understand there are those in the profession who are against it and believe we should never work for “free”. 

To a certain extent, I agree, but when I look back, there were so many of those volunteer experiences that, in the long run, made me more money than if I had never done it. 

Something essential to consider is many who think we should not volunteer are also willing to jump into Facebook groups and ask questions of their colleagues for advice. In such instances like this, you ask your colleagues to “volunteer” their time to answer your questions. While this is part of professional courtesy (and should be encouraged), shouldn’t you compensate those colleagues for their time if you believe we shouldn’t volunteer? And wouldn’t it be the same if you’re sending private DM’s or emails for their professional opinion on something? 

These are clearly all things you have to take into consideration for your business. If you’re a new grad and debating whether it’s worth taking the time to volunteer on something you’re really passionate about in the profession, give it a try, the long term rewards you can reap will be worth it. As time goes on and you get more experience, then you can start being more choosy about where and when you volunteer your time should you decide to do so.

Here’s a LINK to Tanner Thompson’s podcast I was on last week talking about the value of volunteering and getting involved in sport.


Articles Of The Week July 18, 2021

We have written posts on this topic before but this is a good refresher on some issues our patients could be having with their sleep. Some of the results of sleep paralysis include muscle soreness and headaches. So while someone may not know they have sleep paralysis it could be something we recommend they have checked out by another professional.

Sleep Paralysis – Krista O’Connell

Quite often people with joint pain (especially stemming from arthritis) are prescribed steroid injections to help with the pain. As it turns out, new studies are showing this may be doing more harm than good.

A Warning From a Doctor Who Has Done Thousands of Steroid Injections for Arthritis – James Hamblin

No matter what our profession is within the manual therapy community, we all have a defined scope of practice from our regulatory bodies. It’s important we stick to these as giving advice that is out of scope can have some serious ramifications.

Chiropractors aren’t qualified to give COVID-19 vaccine advice, health experts warn – Scott Fralick & Denise Wong

Ahhh yes, anecdotal experience. This is often used in discussions online as a way to say someone doesn’t need to read or apply research in their practice. There are a lot more reasons something works in practice and a technique itself is probably not the reason.

The trouble with “it worked for me” and “athletes use it” – Paul Ingraham

We’ve written articles before on how many of us deal with “imposter syndrome”. But what about the opposite outlook “the dunning-kreuger effect”? Well, this might be the reason for some anti-vax attitudes that we are seeing right now.

How the Dunning-Kruger effect explains anti-vaccine attitudes – Paul Ratner