Shape-Up And Checkup: LA Barbers To Start Testing Blood Pressure

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Barbershops are a traditional gathering place for African-American men — a place to talk politics, sports and gossip. Now, some doctors in Los Angeles are hoping to make the barbershop a place for combating high blood pressure among black men.

Death rates from hypertension are three times higher in African-American men than in white men of the same age, says Dr. Ronald Victor, the director of Cedars-Sinai Center for Hypertension in Los Angeles.

"Hypertension is one of the biggest reasons why the life expectancy of African-American men is only 69 years," Victor says. "That's a full decade less than white men in this country."

This week, he received an $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a study testing whether barbershop intervention could significantly lessen hypertension in African-American men.

The study will involve getting barbers around the city trained to take their patients' blood pressure. Victor is working with Dr. Anthony Reid, a cardiologist in nearby Inglewood, on the project.

Reid says most of his patients are African-American. "My patients like me, but they love the barber, and they'd much rather go to see the barber than the doctor, typically," Reid says.

"The idea is, instead of starting out by asking patients, as usual, to come in to the hallowed halls of medicine, we're bringing medicine to the people who need it," Victor says.

A few years ago, Victor had success with a similar project in Dallas — albeit on a much smaller scale.

One of the barbers he worked with then, James Smith, has been shaping up, lining up and fading men's hair in Dallas for 41 years. He says his customers are like family.

"I'm always the one asking about, 'How's your wife, how's your children, how's your mom?' " Smith says. "So it was easy for me to do that and say, 'Well, look, brother, how's your blood pressure? How's your health?' "

Smith says of all the men he asked to check, only two said no.

"We still do it," Smith says. "We have the machine there and now everybody's conscious of it. Some of them will come in and be like, 'Hey, man, take my blood pressure, check my blood pressure.' You know, they'll come in and ask you to check it; you don't have to check it for them."

Victor and Reid say they'll work with about two-dozen barbershops in LA and will track at-risk patients for at least 18 months. They have partnerships with low-cost health clinics, and Reid says he'll see patients who may not have insurance or who are cash-strapped.

"The ultimate cost is lessened if we treat your hypertension now, as opposed to your kidney disease and hemodialysis and your stroke and your heart attack downstream," Reid says.

If the Los Angeles study goes well, the doctors say, they hope to scale this up and enlist barbers across the country to help fight hypertension.

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