By Les Gura
Talk to Duane Johnson (pictured above) about doing blood pressure checks and diabetes screenings for patrons of M&S Barber Services, the shop he owns in Washington, D.C., and you get history.
Not just about the five years his shop has provided the service, thanks to training and support from MedStar Health, the Maryland-based health care system that created the Hair, Heart and Health program. Rather, Johnson talks about the role barbershops have traditionally played in medicine, dating to medieval times. The traditional barber pole, he notes, points to a past in which barbers performed surgery, primitive though it might have been.
It was a natural, Johnson says, for barbershops to be invited to participate in the Hair, Heart and Health program, and there’s a crucial reason why he considers it an honor to participate.
“I do it as a human being, as a Christian, as somebody that’s concerned not only about the monetary proceeds of the barber shop, but just being able to give back anything,’’ he says. “This is a program that’s a need. And we need more programs like this in the community.”
About Hair, Heart and Health
MedStar Health began the Hair, Heart and Health program as a way to provide outreach to several largely minority and poor neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. After an initial grant expired, MedStar Health, a 10-hospital nonprofit system that includes MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, conducted a community health needs assessment in 2012 for Washington, D.C., one of its key service areas.
Christopher King, MedStar’s assistant vice president for community health, says the assessment found that African-American men area a difficult-to-reach population and many are unaware of their health status. The assessment prompted MedStar to renew and broaden the Hair, Heart and Health program, which it did partly through a grant from AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation.
“We wanted to focus on prevention, have it be culturally tailored, housed in a neighborhood setting and targeted to a specific population,’’ King says. “That’s why we felt the barbershop is a great place.”
There are now four barbershops participating in Washington D.C. neighborhoods. At M&S, Johnson and three barbers were trained to conduct the screenings themselves; the other shops use patient navigators brought on by MedStar to perform the screenings. But the decision to be screened arises through what King says is the most important part of the program—the age-old tradition of barbers and their patrons chewing the fat.
“Barbers have conversations with patrons about health and well-being. It goes beyond screening,’’ King says. “They’re having conversations about health, about mental health and about connecting to services in the community. And through peer-to-peer interactions, information is disseminated by a trusted source.”
Numbers point to need
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a problem in the African-American community, as is the prevalence of diabetes.
According to the American Heart Association, more than 40 percent of non-Hispanic African-Americans have high blood pressure. Statistics show that high blood pressure also develops in African-Americans earlier in life than it does for whites.
Statistics from the Office of Minority Affairs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that African-Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as non-Hispanic whites, and also are more likely to suffer complications from diabetes such as end-stage renal disease.
The grant from AstraZeneca allowed the Hair, Heart and Health program to begin a three-year period of testing in which MedStar Health will gather data to study the effectiveness of the program.
In addition to linking patients to a primary care provider, MedStar is studying whether Hair, Heart and Health is identifying new cases of undiagnosed hypertension and diabetes.
“As we strive to provide impactful health services in community-based settings, more research is needed to identify what works and what doesn’t work. The model is being rigorously evaluated and we are tweaking it as we go,’’ King said, “so this can evolve to an evidence-based program that is worthy of replication in other communities.’’
A new kind of barber service
“We’ve actually physically saved two or three lives with this program,’’ Johnson says, a touch of pride in his voice. “These guys came in and their readings were so high we immediately called an ambulance and they were transported to the hospital.’’ Doctors, he says, later told him that if the men hadn’t been taken in that soon, there was no telling what might have happened.
Although those were unusual cases, Johnson happily points to the many shop regulars who now get their pressure taken, with all of the data duly recorded according to federal privacy laws and shared with any of the patrons’ providers as requested.
“We make a big to-do about that program. We take so much pride in helping that we requested literature to give to people and it was provided to us,’’ he says. “We sold it as a new barbershop product, ‘We’ve got to take your blood pressure.’ A lot of people didn’t take it seriously at first, but as they see the constant awareness and information here, they’ve taken us a lot more seriously. We just went and ran with it.”
The broader message of reaching a population that struggled with high blood pressure and diabetes is crucial, Johnson says.
“Everybody in America is suffering some kind of ailment, like cancer, diabetes. As African-Americans, it affects us the most,’’ he says. “This has been a great opportunity to introduce and educate and to make aware, and being funded by MedStar, what could be better?”
King says one of the most encouraging things about the program is that it has reached even beyond what was envisioned because of the conversations taking place in the shops.
“Men are talking more about their health,” he says, “and through community resource guides that were developed by the staff, patrons are connected to medical and nonmedical services, such as housing assistance or legal help or access to fresh foods. All of these support holistic well-being.’’
Photo: Barber Pole, Broken Sphere, Creative Commons