Men tried getting health care at a barbershop instead of the doctor's—and it worked

In this Sunday, March 11, 2018, photo, Barber Eric Muhammad, owner of A New You Barbershop, left, jokes with regular customer Marc M. Sims before measuring his blood pressure in Inglewood, Calif.
Damian Dovarganes | AP

Regular check ups can save your life, but they don't necessarily require you to go to the doctor. You can also receive effective incremental care at a place like your barbershop.

In a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, African-American men in Los Angeles went to their local barbers and, with the help of a pharmacist right there in the shop, effectively lowered their high blood pressure, decreasing their risk for heart disease, the No. 1 killer of men in the U.S.

What's more, doctors were hardly involved.

"High blood pressure disproportionately affects the African-American community, and we must find new ways to reach out so we can prevent strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and early deaths," said Ronald G. Victor, MD, associate director of the Smidt Heart Institute and lead author, in a press release.

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In one of Victor's previous experiments years ago, he had barbers refer patrons with high blood pressure to physicians, but the intervention was only minimally successful in improving health, according to The New York Times.

For the more recent study, while the control group was encouraged by their barbers to make healthy lifestyle changes and go see physicians, members of the intervention group were encouraged to meet with pharmacists right there in the barbershop. On a monthly basis, the pharmacists performed blood tests and prescribed medication, all while keeping each patron's primary care provider in the loop.

The result: While the control group lowered systolic blood pressure from an average of 155 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) to 145 after six months, the intervention group dropped from 153 to 126. Only 11 percent of the control group patrons brought their blood pressure to a healthy range, but two-thirds of those who worked with pharmacists in the barber shop were successful.

"It woke me up. All I could think about was me having a stroke and not being here for [my son]. It was time to get my health right," Marc Sims, a 43-year-old records clerk at a law firm, told the Associated Press.

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Medical care in the U.S. is notoriously expensive, costing the average America $10,000 in 2016, and many can't afford it. About one out of four Americans say they or someone in their family have skipped necessary care because of the cost, according to a Bankrate survey, while most can't cover a $1,000 emergency. Millions wait until they get a tax refund to access care they've been putting off.

And though blood pressure medication has become more affordable than it used to be, costs, as well as distrust in the health care system, have prevented much of the high-risk population highlighted in this study from receiving ongoing care necessary to treat hypertension, a chronic condition.

"Once you have hypertension, it requires a lifetime commitment to taking medications and making lifestyle changes," Victor said. "It is often challenging to get people who need blood pressure medication to take them ... With this program, we have been able to overcome that barrier."

Researchers also believe the participants of the study were more receptive to support and advice when it came to them in a familiar, convenient place.

"There is a different level of trust and respect that's earned when you meet people where they are, instead of in a hospital or clinic," said Ciantel Blyler, a pharmacist at one of the barbershops and co-author of the study. "The rapport I've been able to establish with this group of patients has been unlike any other I've had in my professional career."

Victor and his colleagues are now exploring ways to tackle other issues, such as high cholesterol, reports the Associated Press, through a similar community-based approach.

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