TIME Heart Disease

Mississippi Men Learn About Heart Disease — At the Barber

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John Sigler—Getty Images

Barbershops may be the new doctor's office, at least in Mississippi where African American men are learning about high blood pressure...while they get their hair cut

Barber shops and hair salons are great community hubs where residents gather for both grooming and gossip. So public health experts in the Mississippi Delta have decided to exploit these social meccas to connect with groups that don’t often see health care providers, including African American men.

Heart disease and stroke, for example, disproportionately affect this population of men, partly due to genetics, and partly due to lifestyle behaviors. But in places like the Mississippi Delta region, these men also do not get regular heart disease screenings. They do, however, go to barbershops for trims and to catch up on community news. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funding a barbershop initiative called Brothers (Barbers Reaching Out to Help Educate Routine Screenings) located throughout the Mississippi Delta, where heart disease and stroke are the second and fourth leading causes of death in black men.

The Mississippi Department of Health spent a year recruiting and training barber shop workers on how to read a blood pressure screening, and discuss risk factors. During appointments, barbers talk to their clients about heart health, take their blood pressure, and refer them to a physician if they need further counseling. Recruitment was, and continues to be a challenge since some of the barbers were on board with the benefits of educating their clients, but worried about whether the program would hurt their business.

So far, thought, the barbers are being pretty persuasive. The project, which involves 14 barbershops that have so far served 686 men, just released its first set of data. Only 35% of the customers said that they had a doctor and 57% did not have health insurance. Among the men who received blood pressure readings, 48.5% had prehypertension, and 36.4% had high blood pressure. The findings, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, shows that the program provides care to men who need it, as well as gives public health care workers a better idea of how prevalent heart disease is in the region, and how many patients are in need of medical care. The next step for the researchers is to create a community health worker network that could introduce these men to the health care system and help them navigate more regular screenings and better treatment of their condition.

Shifting health care from the clinic to the community isn’t a new idea; in some areas, health screenings and education are conducted in churches. But the faithful are a select group, and the study’s lead author says it’s important to bring services to hard-to-reach populations, such as young black men, to where they are. “We realized in our standard community health screenings–which were happening in churches–that we were not reaching adult black men,” says lead study author Vincent Mendy, an epidemiologist at the Mississippi State Department of Health. “We think the best way to reach them is through barbershops.” The program is part of a partnership between the CDC and the Mississippi State Department of Health, and is funded through September 2015.

Mendy is hopeful that the program will reach more men and bring them into treatment, since a similar 2011 initiative in Texas, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that barbers helped to lower blood pressure in a population of African American men by 20%. Based on this growing body of research, the CDC is considering relying on community health workers to help improve the health of minority groups that have a disproportionate risk of disease and death in the U.S. — but are often outside of the health care system. Barbershops aren’t clinics, but they do seem to be a good place to get health messages across.

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