How a Barbershop Can Improve Healthcare for African Americans

How a Barbershop Can Improve Healthcare for African Americans

Throughout history, barbershops have been known to be intrinsic to the male African American experience. Barbers who specialize in grooming services for African American men are respected in their communities for providing more than just fades, tapers, fresh cuts, and shaves; barbershops are cultural institutions that facilitate discourse and bring men from all walks of life together.
In Harlem, a team of medical researchers from New York University (NYU) chose a particular barbershop as one of more than 60 centers for a special public health initiative at the community level. The research leader is Dr. Joseph E. Ravenell, MD, MS, an assistant professor at the prestigious Center for Healthful Behavior Change, a medical institution dedicated to advancing public health at the core level, which involves instilling awareness and healthy life changes at the individual level.
How a Barbershop Can Improve Healthcare for African Americans

The Men’s Health Initiative


Dr. Ravenell and his team set up shop at Harlem Masters, a venerable staple of the community, where the conversation flows as it should at a traditional Afro-American barbershop: freely and with a sense of purpose. In between cracking jokes and pondering if the New York Knicks can improve under coach Phil Jackson, the men waiting for haircuts at Harlem Masters also talk about health topics.

The NYU team at Harlem Masters approaches each customer that sits down to get a haircut. The goal is to engage them in a conversation about  health, take their blood pressure, talk about the risks of heart and circulatory disease, introduce the topic of colon cancer, and teach them about organ donation.

For Dr. Ravenell, conducting this study at Harlem Masters holds a special place in his heart; after all, this is the place where his father used to bring him for haircuts twice a week. It is not unusual for successful and diligent barbers who serve African American communities to go three generations deep when cutting hair, and this is exactly the type of public health outreach Dr. Ravenell is interested in.

The Healthcare Impact

Hypertension is a known medical risk for African American men. Dr. Ravenell knows that Afro-American males are often restrained when it comes to seeking healthcare, and this is exactly what his initiative tackles. Over a five-year period, Dr. Ravenell’s teams operated at dozens of African American barbershops, and they counseled men whose blood pressure readings hinted at hypertension.

Through counseling, exercise, nutrition, and healthy habits, Dr. Ravenell’s teams reached out to 731 patients engaged at barbershops. The positive healthcare impact was immediate: blood pressure levels were lowered by an average of five points in just six months. The impact related to colon cancer counseling and organ donation awareness will have to wait for results to be tallied, analyzed and published, but there is an undeniable immediate benefit seen in men who were not aware of certain conditions.

In medieval times, barbers also served as providers of minor surgery, and they used to set up shop in castles where they could cater to royalty. It is fitting that Dr. Ravenell came up with the idea of conducting his public health research and outreach at barbershops. Can you think of other great ideas for Dr. Ravenell’s work?


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