Haircut, Shave ... and a Blood Pressure Screening? Inner City Barbershops Double as Health Clinics

Shave and a haircut and a blood-pressure check. Black men can now trim their risk of death at the same place that they trim their hair – the barber shop.

Barber shops and beauty salons in black neighborhoods are leading a nationwide fight to make African-Americans healthier by detecting deadly diseases early enough to treat them effectively.

Barber shops have historically been gathering places for black men; the men's hair salon was the theme of the 2004 movie Barber Shop. Now many communities receiving federal funds for health screening are conducting tests in the shops throughout the country.

“We have to go where the men are, and in many cases the best place is the barber shop,” Dr. Wayne Giles, director of the Division of Adult and Community Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told

Black men are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than white men, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Death rates due to stroke and prostate cancer are also much higher among black males.

In an effort to detect these diseases early, barber shops and beauty parlors are weaving health screenings, information about diseases and advice about diet and exercise into their routine coiffing and cutting.

Among the steps that have been taken:

? Four thousand barbers are in a program called Prostate Net, which provides information on screening and free care

? Barbers and beauticians in five Washington, D.C., shops have been trained to screen clients for high blood pressure and obesity and to recommend medical treatment

? Programs similar to those in Washington operate in Boston, Baltimore and Hackensack, N.J.

One of the newest programs, “The Barber Shop Quartet” in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, screens men for hypertension, diabetes, and prostate and colon cancers. The program, started earlier this year, also provides free follow-up medical treatment if problems are detected.

Denny Moe’s Superstar Barber Shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard is in the forefront of the fight to screen black men and counter the scourge of diseases afflicting the residents of Harlem.

The shop’s owner, Dennis Mitchell, has covered one wall of the shop with faded photographs of Negro Baseball League players. Another wall bears a montage of historic African-American leaders such as orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “I want the men to feel that they have a history to be proud of,” said Mitchell, a burly man with a soft voice.

“The barber shop is the last sanctuary of the black man who wants to talk about life’s problems,” said Mitchell, amid the din of client chatter. “Men talk about money, sickness and looking for jobs. I listen and tell them about the health screenings and what’s available in the neighborhood.”

Local hospitals provide doctors and nurses, and volunteers encourage passers-by to be screened in a van outside the barber shop. “The Barber Shop Quartet” was established by the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem’s largest church, with more than 4,000 congregants.

The church believes that scriptures mandate good care of the body.

“There is a passage in the Bible which says our bodies are our temples and we must cherish and preserve them,” said Patricia Butts, the head of the church’s health ministry and the wife of its pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts.

Black men’s health is atrocious, observed Dr. Walter Delph, a urologist who has worked in Harlem for 30 years and tests men for the neighborhood project. African-Americans in Harlem have a 105 percent greater death rate from diabetes than the nation’s general population, according to data from New York’s Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

Delph said many men neglect their health and see a doctor only when their illness has advanced to a critical stage. “Then there is not much we can do,” Delph lamented. “I don’t know why many blacks neglect their health. A lot of folks will say ‘I don’t go to the doctor because I’m afraid of what he might find.’ ”

He said blacks are genetically more vulnerable to such diseases as hypertension and diabetes, and obesity speeds the onset of these chronic illnesses. "More than 60 percent of African-American males are overweight,” Delph said.

Neglect of health was linked to poverty by Dr. Bert Petersen, a breast cancer surgeon who assists the quartet. “People often say to me, don’t talk to me about my health when I need something to eat and need to take care of my kids.”

Mistrust of the health system contributes to many blacks neglecting their health, said Dr. Wayne Giles of the CDC. “In many instances the healthcare system has not acted in a trustworthy manner.”

Giles said that this lack of trust goes back generations.

Doctors unanimously blame fast food diets that are laden with high fat and salt to many of the ills of African-Americans. Fast food restaurants abound in Harlem and in other cities with large black populations. The CDC is funding a program calling for a moratorium on the establishment of more fast food restaurants in predominantly black South Los Angeles.

“The idea that people can do things to prevent chronic conditions is a message that doesn’t resonate with many African-Americans,” said Giles, who believes this misconception is being remedied.

“More and more communities of color are doing what affluent communities have done for decades,” he said. “They are empowering themselves to take control of their environment.”

Barber shops and beauty salons started becoming meeting places for blacks after the Civil War. They were among the few businesses that blacks could own. They are still hubs for black social life, and now they are helping to save lives.