The barbershop is a cornerstone in Black neighborhoods all over the country and a common place to find Black men from all walks of life.
You have seen the films about the joking and life lessons being passed down from one generation to another in the barbershop, but Dr. Joseph Ravenell, who works at NYU School of Medicine, came up with an ingenious plan to promote healthier living for Black men using the barbershop as a vessel for healthier living.
Since “the people” will not come to a primary care physician, Dr. Ravenell is bringing the primary care physicians to the people.
It is no secret that Black men do not go to the doctor for regular check-ups as we should, which is a contributor to the huge health-disparity gap between Blacks and Whites.
While waiting for their favorite barber, Dr. Ravenell and his small team of NYU physicians and researchers offer free blood-pressure screenings along with valuable medical advice.
Dr. Ravenell’s Men’s Health Initiative Program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, was rolled out in 69 barbershops across New York City between 2009 and 2014.
“For a whole host of reasons, black men tend to underutilize private health-care services,” Dr. Ravenell said, citing a lack of access to health care and insurance, as well as a culture of mistrust between black patients and health-care providers, as contributing problems.
“Once they sit down in the chair to get their blood pressure measured, it’s a perfect entree to talk about not only cardiovascular disease, but also colon cancer and now organ donation,” Dr. Ravenell added.
While this may not be traditional barbershop talk, Dr. Ravenell is successfully leveraging the tradition and trust established by the barbershop to not only make Black men healthier now, but to ensure the next generation is more health aware.
Polo Greene has owned and operated Harlem Masters Barbershop for 14 years and he understands the impact Dr. Ravenell’s program can have on Black men. Many of his clients have been loyal to him for more than 25 years, so his customers are more like family.
“Not only do I cut the father’s hair, I cut the son’s hair,” he said. “If the son has any children, I cut the son’s son’s hair. I’m going on three generations of families.”
Dr. Ravenell and his team have screened 10,000 Black men through the barbershops and also offered those with high blood-pressure the opportunity to enroll in a six-month study that gives nutritional and exercise advice. They also help with ways to stop smoking, in person and over the phone, during that period.
731 people have participated and their blood pressure has dropped by an average of 5 points over the six-month period.
“If the entire population were to achieve that kind of blood-pressure drop, we would reduce stroke risk by about 30 percent,” Dr. Ravenell said. “We’re talking about a potentially major public health impact.”
Heart disease from high blood pressure is a condition that can be managed if detected early, but it is a disease that disproportionally impacts African-Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
43% of African-American men and nearly 46% of African-American women have high blood pressure, compared to 33% of White men and 31% of White women.