With HAIR, a trip to the barber shop could save your life

December 1, 2022 | (Ginger Whitaker)

WASHINGTON – When customers visit Christopher’s Grooming Lounge on H Street in Northeast D.C., they’ll get more than a haircut and a close shave. They’ll also get some potentially life-saving advice.

“We talk about everything here. We go from politics to sports to personal lives, down to relationships. We know all of your secrets, for the most part,” says Christopher Bradley, owner and operator of Christopher’s Grooming Lounge.

So when Bradley received a call from Stephen Thomas, a professor at University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, asking if he would be interested in discussing information with his regular clients that could save their lives, he says it was “a no-brainer.”

On April 23, Christopher’s Grooming Lounge became the latest of 11 area barber shops to join Thomas’ Health Advocates In-Reach (HAIR) program. The program works with barber-shop owners and their employees to deliver preventive health messages to the members of their communities.

“No self-respecting black barber would ever say, ‘I’ll get you in and out in 15 minutes,’” says Thomas, who’s been building the HAIR program for the past decade.

“It’s recognition of the deep roots that black barber shops have in their community. They are trusted opinion leaders, and if they work … to re-enforce the evidence-based message, they’re a powerful tool on our behalf, improving health.”

Although he’s worked with community leaders on a variety of topics, Thomas’ current initiative focuses on preventing colon cancer in black communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, D.C. has the highest rate of colorectal cancer deaths in the U.S.

Black Americans are 45 percent more likely than other racial groups to die from colon cancer, and because of this, it’s recommended that they begin screening at the age of 45, which is five years earlier than other racial groups. But 33 percent of black Americans are not getting tested as needed.

“In order to reach African Americans, we’ve got to do things differently, because they are still dying before their time from a disease that is totally preventable,” Thomas says.

“That word begins in the barber shop.”

Fred Spry, owner and operator of The Shop in Hyattsville, Maryland, has been working as a health advocate with Thomas for two years now. He says he’s talked to his clients about a number of health issues, from flu shots to heart disease, and has never felt awkward about broaching the topics.

“We always have these types of conversations with clients after sports and after the daily news — that’s one of the things we just automatically talk about is, ‘How are you doing?’” he says.

So far, Spry has encouraged 29 of his customers to get colonoscopies.

The shop owners who participate in HAIR are given a stipend for the time they spend training, in addition to a stipend for their shop, which is funded in part with a recent grant from the Cigna Foundation.

Thomas says the program has even helped fund renovations at the barber shops that don’t have a private space to discuss personal health issues with clients.

Participating barbers are trained using scientifically sound and culturally tailored materials. Thomas says they are even coached on the best times to introduce the health messages to the clients in their chairs.

Past public health programs that use community members as health advocates have utilized church leaders and teachers, but Thomas says in black communities, barber shops have the greatest reach.

“While everybody may not go to church, everybody gets their hair done,” he says.

Barber shop owner Bradley agrees. “This is where everyone comes. At some point, you have to come in, you have to see us. You have no choice,” he says.

Bradley says community members trust their barbers because the shops have always been a gathering place for community members of all ages, making it the perfect place to extend a life-saving message.

“We raise generations,” he says. “We’ve always raised generations in the barber shop. The son comes here; he may tell his father and bring his son. The impact, it just spreads.”

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