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Sue Harmsworth

How Sue Harmsworth is bringing the spa industry together to support cancer patients

business insights & tips spa & salon industry news understanding your clients Apr 23, 2021

In early 2020, Sue Harmsworth, a spa industry leader best known as the founder of ESPA, launched SATCC (Standards Authority for Training and Cancer Care). The initiative sets out to bring together everyone working towards making the spa industry more accessible for anyone living with, being treated for or recovering from cancer.

It creates a central point for information, standards and communication. A year on, and a global pandemic later, we spoke to Sue who explained more about the journey so far and how SATCC supports therapists, spa businesses and spa clients.

For anyone who isn’t aware of SATCC, explain how it supports the consumer and how that's different to what's gone before.

Historically nothing has happened in a group way. Individuals, like Jennifer Young, Abi Selby from and other members of our board have done fantastic work individually, but there’s never been a resource that brings it all together.

Therapists have always been scared when it comes to supporting clients with cancer, not because they didn’t want to help people, but because they didn’t have the training to provide the right physical and emotional care.

There also wasn’t a resource where the consumer could go to find a spa or therapist that they knew was trained to treat them at whatever stage they were at on their cancer journey. We got this amazing group of people together, all of whom are passionate about what they do and see the day to day need for appropriate training as well as the very real power of touch.

When an individual goes through their personal experience with cancer, there are so many different stages. Historically, they have effectively been eliminated from the spa experience because they have been turned away.

We have 13 individuals and companies on the SATCC board, all of whom have worked in the industry for many years. They don’t always agree, but that’s a good thing as it creates discussions. The whole issue of cancer and spa treatments is evolving all the time and even in the last 20 years there have been enormous changes in oncologist and practitioner views.

How have you gone about implementing those actions to support cancer patients?

In the initial instance we put our standards charter together. Everyone on the board was brought in and agreed to comply with it, and anyone new also has to agree to those standards. We’re not an accrediting organisation – a business would have to get their curriculum approved by an accrediting body and then come in under SATCC.

The next thing was the website, which is getting a lot of hits. We have a facility where spa guests can do a postcode search for either a qualified individual therapist or spas and organisations that have qualified therapists available. We have two key partnerships – one with booking platform, where anyone looking for a spa that’s suitable for someone touched by cancer can find it under their Safe Hands for Cancer collection.

We have a link with Think Tree Hub, which is an accrediting body who cater to individual therapists and holistic practitioners, as well as spas, so individuals including osteopaths, nutritionists etc., can register as well. We didn’t want this to be exclusive, it’s about making therapies as accessible as possible on the basis that not everyone can afford to go to spas.

What has the response been like - from therapists, from the industry, from cancer patients and from their loved ones?

The response from the industry has been fantastic. It’s hard to be specific as a lot of feedback is anecdotal, but I get emails all the time saying it’s long overdue.

Self-employed therapists are very interested in getting qualified and accredited because they see the need for it in their clients. Those who are employed at spas and hotels come up against the same battle I have been fighting for as long as I can remember, to get the venues to realise the need to train therapists to support clients with cancer. Hospitality was really bad about it for a long time, but we’re seeing a real change now.

We launched at a difficult time because it was just before Covid and everyone has had other priorities since then. However, I think now there’s a huge change. I advise five-star hotels around the world and I can see a major difference in the overall acceptance of importance of their spas.

My hope is that SATCC will be a building block, whereby, if therapists can get their training to a certain point, it will stand them in good stead for handling other lifestyle diseases as well, ranging from mental health to long-term Covid, bereavement, loneliness. We’re expecting therapists to be able to deal with these issues and the industry is recognising the benefits that they can bring so they are starting to invest.

I think as guests come back after lockdown destinations will realise the importance of spas even more. We’re all paying more attention to wellness overall and destinations are paying attention sleep and how bedrooms are designed etc., the difference between hygiene and infection is going to get more delineated and one thing I fought for, for years, was air changes in treatment rooms, both for therapist wellbeing as well as the health of guests. Owners and hotels are beginning to recognise all of these things.

Have you come up against any barriers?

No, I think the timing was right. I think we would have done if it was 10 years ago, but so many people have been touched personally by cancer now. We also have the data now to support what we’re saying. We’re more evidence based as an industry. The numbers coming out about lifestyle, prevention and recurrence – it’s all evidence based, so people are taking it more seriously and I have had positive feedback as a result. Generally speaking, we’re getting oncologists on side too, especially in the United States. We have also had lovely feedback from clients and relatives of clients.

I do find that there are some in the industry who are competitive about this area, but I think we should all work together – we’re much more powerful that way.

Now we are working on getting more alliances with charities, so they have a point where they can direct their clients. At the moment SATCC targets the UK and Ireland, but globally we’re being approached more and more destinations and as a result of demand we will likely expand internationally at some point.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for therapists in this field?

The biggest issues for therapists are:

  1. A lot of people who have been touched by cancer know the problem in the industry and then go to see a spa or a therapist and don’t tell them their medical history. Many young therapists haven’t seen the scars from cancer treatments – they don’t know about lymph nodes or mastectomies and will be halfway through treatment when they discover something.
  2. Therapists need to know and understand the terminology around cancer so that they can provide comfort and not show shock. For the client, it’s so important to be asked questions, made to feel safe and to know that the therapist won’t suddenly get a surprise and react inappropriately. Often, young therapists haven’t had the life experience to deal with these things, so the more help and knowledge they can get, the better.

One reason for setting up SATCC is that in my view, after 50 years of having 700 spas and training 5,000 post graduate therapists a year, there’s a process of learning therapists need to go through to be able to treat people with serious health issues properly. At the moment, we’re saying you need a minimum Level 3 in UK before doing oncology training. It’s important you know your anatomy and physiology. Short courses are brilliant when used correctly, but it worries me that someone might be doing a series of smaller courses rather than really getting to grips with the basics first.

I also feel strongly that nationally we should start to produce more modules for holistic training in all areas, including things like nutrition and breath work. On that basis, I think there is a case for taking standards up to Level 6 for oncology training.

How do you think the needs of cancer patients will continue to evolve moving forwards?

I hope that the industry can keep up with the need and that the consumer doesn’t get ahead of us, because the volume and different types of cancer we’re talking about are vast. From what I understand, and the feedback I get, once you’ve gone through your cancer treatment, you don’t want to be treated differently to anyone else. You don’t want cancer to shape your identity.

So, when you go to a spa you want your therapist to not specifically be for someone with cancer because mentally and physically, the headspace is that you’re better and you want to stay better. That’s why it’s so important that there are different approaches in the spa environment at different stages of the cancer journey - from diagnosis to active treatment and post treatment.

What can spa businesses do to improve the client experience?

I think incorporating breath work is a huge thing, as well as embracing the sensory experience: the olfactory system, the music – creating an environment that’s about feeling well. We’re not trying to make claims about what spa treatments can do. We want people to sleep better, relax, maybe help with pain. It’s not just about massage either – that’s the big topic at the moment but I think there are other modalities that will come to the fore over the coming years as well.

Someone said to me, when you have been through the whole process with cancer, however great the medical staff are, you’re just a number and it’s a process. The nurses are wonderful, but they are very short on time, and it’s not the same as going to a spa and having a full hour or 90 minutes that’s just about you and your therapist. It’s all about experience and that’s part of the training. Having the right words, empathy and sympathy is so important, and sometimes that’s as easy as teaching phraseology.

The social aspect is really important too. I think that will be big as spas come pack post lockdown. Being able to go somewhere and be together with loved ones as a normal person and have fun – that’s a big part of the experience for all of us. So many people tell me that when they have cancer their friends don’t know how to support them, and this is one way they can be together without it being loaded.

How would you like to see the industry continue to develop in this area?

That’s a big question and I think the only thing to say is that you never stop learning. The pandemic won’t go away, so we need to learn positivity and flexibility. We need to change quickly but I think the good thing that will come out of it, and it’s already happening in Asia, is that where lots of people weren’t very interested in wellness before, now they are.

I think for us as individuals, we need to define wellness, because it’s a term that’s overused. We need to differentiate between integrative medicine, beauty etc., so the consumer can understand it better. It’s far too confusing at the moment.

There are so many different lifestyle issues emerging too. Cancer is a big one, but mental health is arguably bigger in terms of numbers and cost to the NHS. I would like the industry to be able to support the NHS more, and I think we can. I think government still doesn’t really understand the difference between holistic health and beauty (which is also important, but separate).

I work with a lot of doctors who feel that the global public health budgets will not support the issues that are emerging. As an industry, we need to find ways we can be there - there’s more and more data to support that idea. It’s difficult as spas are perceived to be a luxury, so we need a way to make it more accessible for dealing with these lifestyle issues.

As mentioned, we intend to go international with SATCC because we’re getting so much feedback from big groups who want help. With one in two people projected to be touched by cancer in their lifetime, we need therapists to be trained to handle clients in an empathetic way, and to ensure those touched by cancer can safely benefit from spa treatments. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.


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