These Barbershops Give Stylish Cuts While Saving Lives

A Los Angeles physician is working with the shops, long a social institution in the black community, to tackle the epidemic of high blood pressure.

(Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Jun 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Black-owned barbershops have long been more than just a place to get a close shave and a haircut. As scholar and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in her 2004 book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, the salons are “the archetype of the black public space” and are also home to “the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs in the African-American community.” Now Los Angeles doctor Ronald Victor is out to use the social institution to save black men’s lives, one barbershop at a time.

Victor is teaming up with shop owners in Los Angeles to help fight hypertension in African American men. Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, leads to numerous health problems and can be fatal. With the help of an $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Victor, the director of the Cedars-Sinai Center for Hypertension, plans to train barbers from 20 shops in Los Angeles to properly screen their customers for high blood pressure.

The challenge they’re up against is massive. African American men are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers, more likely to be racially profiled, and more likely to end up in the legal system—all factors that can have a significant negative impact on health. They’re also more likely to die of the effects of preventable conditions, such as high blood pressure.

The disorder, explains Victor, “is especially devastating to African American men, who have very high rates of hypertension but less contact with the health care system than any other group.” According to the American Heart Association, 33.4 percent of white males have high blood pressure, but a shocking 42.6 percent of African American men have the ailment. Although the association’s data reveals that a sky-high 47 percent of African American women also have high blood pressure, males are the group least likely to get help.

In the past, cost and lack of health insurance prevented many African American men from getting regular medical checkups. “Many of the barbershop customers in previous studies were working two jobs to make ends meet and either didn’t have medical insurance or were underinsured,” says Victor.

This lack of interaction with doctors has translated to lower rates of treatment, higher long-term health care costs, and an increased risk of stroke, kidney failure, and heart attack—a leading cause of death for African Americans. For black folks younger than 50, the heart failure risk is more than 20 times that of whites, and the leading contributing factor is hypertension.

“In the Middle Ages barbers were called barber surgeons,” says Victor. “The idea is to enlist the aid of the barbers to reclaim their historical role as a part of the health care team, with a modern twist.”

With more than 18,000 black-owned barbershops across the country, “the barbershop is a uniquely personal place to discuss health with influential peers,” says Victor, who conducted a similar trial in Dallas in 2010. During that study, which was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2011, Victor’s team found that customers with high blood pressure who were screened at their local barbershop experienced better health outcomes than those whose barber only passed out pamphlets about the disease.

Victor hopes to take what he’s learned in the Dallas trial and see if he can replicate it in Los Angeles. While the study is a step in the right direction, the real test will come after the trial is done. It remains to be seen if men who receive barbershop screenings outside a controlled study will follow up with a physician. “Hopefully the Affordable Care Act will make this a whole lot easier and remove a large financial barrier [to treatment],” Victor says.

The barbershop initiative is just one of many ways doctors are looking to expand care to underserved populations. Between a resurgence of doctors making house calls and schools across the nation being outfitted with community health centers, access to quality health care is finally being extended to those who need it.

If the program proves successful, Victor and his research team plan to expand to other California cities and other states with large African American populations, such as Mississippi and South Carolina.