Haircutters: health assets in the community

Jan 23, 2017 | Health Resources, Stakeholder Health Stories | 1 comment



By Tom Peterson

As we look around our communities for assets to improve health it’s usually not long before we see the hair salons and barbershops. They are often community gathering places, where people connect.  The person who cuts your hair may also have your back, providing health and other benefits. Few people are allowed into our personal space—including touching—on such a regular basis. Most like to listen, talk and share, and they often know the intimacies of our lives.

Here are a few ways these folks go beyond giving the perfect ‘do.

Watching out for domestic violence

Beginning this month, licensed barbers, stylists and other beauty professionals in Illinois are required to take a one-hour training to help them recognize signs of domestic violence. Over time they will take further courses. While they aren’t required to report suspected cases they can now point victims to resources that may literally save their lives.

Screening for blood pressure


Dwayne Johnson (pictured), at M&S Barber Services in Washington, D.C., gives his clients both blood pressure screenings and diabetes tests. Working with MedStar, a healthcare system, Johnson’s shop and a few others have been trained to provide the services.

“Barbers have conversations with patrons about health and well-being. It goes beyond screening,’’ MedStar’s Christopher King told Stakeholder Health. “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.”

Les Gura writes for Stakeholder Health:

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.”

Looking out for skin cancer

One-in-five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, making it the country’s most common cancer. It can usually be cured when detected early but there’s no significant screening process. And while most skin cancer doesn’t occur on the scalp and neck, some does, and the hairdresser and barber are often in a place to notice the signs. So medical organizations in New England and other parts of the country offer trainings to those who cut our hair, helping them learn to recognize the signs and how to tactfully suggest a client see a doctor.

And colon cancer, HIV

Over the past two years 29 customers of The Shop in Hyattsville, Md, got a colonoscopy, according to an article in the Washington Post:

One of those people, says owner Fredie Spry, was already showing symptoms of colon cancer and is now getting treated. Many more of Spry’s African-American clients learned that the cancer is one of the few that are preventable and—given blacks’ higher-than-average risk for the disease– they should consider getting a first colonoscopy at 45.

“It makes me feel like I’m giving back to the community,” said Spry, who opened The Shop in 2001. “In life, you’re either helping our hurting. You’re part of the problem or the solution.”

The Shop was the first establishment to implement University of Maryland’s Health In-Reach and Research Initiative (HAIR)—a one-of-a-kind outreach program that trains barbers to teach their clients about colorectal cancer and measures, like a colonoscopy, that can prevent it.

Responding to an increase in HIV rates, more than a dozen hair salons and barbershops in Dallas are offering free HIV testing as well as condoms. “People would rather get tested here then go to a clinic,” barber Gerard Claiborne told Bevel Code.

Haircutters help kids read

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, kids can get a two-dollar discount if they’ll read aloud to the barber during the haircut. Barber Jozef Jason told NPR that he quizzes the kids on what they read, to make sure they’re also comprehending the story. “Any help these kids can get with reading and … comprehension is a big thing. You know, maybe someday some kid will grow up and be a journalist, be a writer, and he’ll say, ‘You know what, when I was young, my barber used to make me read.’”

In movement that’s growing from Harlem to Dubuque to Houston. “Research has shown that only one book is available for every 300 children in low-income areas, as opposed to 13 books, on average, in homes of middle-and-high income children,” reports the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. The foundation, and the Houston Public Library are partnering with barbershops to create “Little Free Libraries” that give books to kids in need. The barbers are reading mentors and offer incentives, such as free haircuts and books, to participants.

Workforce reentry program

In Lexington, Kentucky, Barbers Rodney James and Anthony Hayden formed the Lexington Academy for Barbers (L.A.B.), a barbershop and barbering school. The school offers a work reentry program that gives felons and others coming out of prison a second chance. “Barbering was my only way back,” Timothy Maxberry told the Key News Journal. “Due to my felony conviction I can’t get a good job. Only restaurants would hire me and that’s not what I wanted to do.”

Muslim and Jewish barbers cut homeless people’s hair

To celebrate the beginning of the Muslim and Jewish new year barbers Husain Jamaili and Andy Sarsby give 20 homeless people haircuts near London’s Charing Cross station. Jamali is Muslim and Sarsby is Jewish. “The power of giving people a haircut is an amazing thing,” Sarsby told Buzzfeed. “Only a select few people are able to get in the personal space of random people – doctors, dentists, and hairdressers – and it’s a position that shouldn’t be abused and takes a lot of responsibility.” Practicing the same values of different religions are Jamaili and Sarsby also remind passersby of our common human spirit.

“Do your little bit of good where you are,” said Desmond Tutu. “It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.
” If haircutters can find so many creative ways to help save the world, there’s no reason that—whatever we do—we couldn’t do the same.


Image of girl with book, LA Johnson for NPR.


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1 Comment

  1. Penny R Lyon

    How true that there is an intimacy that comes with cutting hair, and that so many folks who receive that service may have other needs that could be identified in those close moments. AMAZING, what a way to amplify the service provided! Bravo!


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