The barbershop is about as multifunctional a space as they come: a place to get a lineup, a shave, or a cut and color; a place to unwind; a place to catch up on the news—and now, according to a new study, a place to cut your blood pressure.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday and shared at a national cardiology conference, found that inviting pharmacists into the shop and training barbers to dispense advice on treating hypertension helped to substantially lower the blood pressure of at-risk clients. According to SFGate, doctors now want to expand the project in more cities across the country.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, is the leading cause of premature disability and death among black men. To make matters worse, distrust and discomfort around physicians and hospitals means that black men are less likely than black women to see a doctor. Getting beyond the hospital and into the community, then, is vital.
As Medical Xpress reports, the study included more than 300 black men recruited from 52 barbershops in the Los Angeles area, all of whom had blood pressure readings high enough to put them at high risk of heart attack and stroke. The site details how the trial was conducted:
The men were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group’s barbers encouraged patrons to meet with specially trained pharmacists who met the men monthly in the barbershop—where they prescribed blood pressure medication, monitored blood tests and then sent progress notes to each patron’s primary care provider.
In the second group, barbers encouraged their patrons to follow up with a primary care provider for treatment and make lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise and decreasing salt consumption.
The trial lasted a year. In at least one barbershop, California Healthline reports, a blood pressure machine was installed that sent patients’ readings directly to their doctors or the visiting pharmacist.
The results were a “home run,” according to an independent medical expert interviewed by SFGate.
Both groups saw substantial blood pressure drops. When the study began, participants had a top pressure number that averaged 154 over 80 (130 or below is considered normal).
After six months, men who just received advice and counsel from their barbers saw their blood pressure fall by 9 points. For those who had the extra support of the pharmacist in the shop, it fell by a whopping 27 points on average.
By the end of the study, two-thirds of the men who met with pharmacists in the barbershop lowered their blood pressure to 130. Meanwhile, 12 percent of the men who just received advice from their barber saw their blood pressure drop to normal levels.
Naturally, The Root’s senior barbershop correspondent, Michael Harriot, had some questions:
- How are they going to take your blood pressure with that one badass kid running around?
- Will there be one pharmacist whom no one wants to go to because he fucked up your blood work last time?
- Are we sure we want medical information in the same place that spreads conspiracy theories like drinking through a straw can make you gay? (Harriot would also like to confirm that, yes, this is an actual conspiracy he’s heard in a barbershop.)
Also, how do you tip someone on blood work?
All jokes aside, the results of the barbershop study illuminate a new path in overcoming a long-standing (and well-earned) distrust among black Americans and physicians that has prevented some patients from receiving the care they need. This trust barrier makes it all the more difficult for black male patients to get the sort of sustained treatment that chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension require.
“This is a very significant effect for a hypertension trial of any kind,” said Dr. Ronald G. Victor, associate director of the Smidt Heart Institute and the study’s lead author. Victor, too, suffers from high blood pressure, which was diagnosed by his barber in Dallas when he conducted his first study of this kind in the 1990s.
As Victor pointed out, hypertension requires a lifelong commitment to taking medications and changing one’s lifestyle, and extra support and contact are necessary.
“It is often challenging to get people who need blood pressure medication to take them, even as costs and side effects have gone down over the years. With this program, we have been able to overcome that barrier,” he said.
While the trial lasted just a year, there are signs that its participants are carrying the study’s lessons forward.
One barber who participated in the study, Corey Thomas, told California Healthline that he continues to talk to his customers about hypertension even though the study is over—and the blood pressure machine in his shop is still available for anyone to use.
“A lot of us use the emergency room as doctors,” Thomas said. “So I think [these] studies will help out a great deal.”