Good News Series: Barbershop as Health Clinic

Dec 29, 2011

"Take his left arm and I'll place this between his shoulder and his elbow and make sure it grabs on kind of tight, make sure it's nice and firm," says Reggie Phillips as he checks the blood pressure of his employee Javon Bradley.

Phillips and Bradley are inside Masterpiece Locks and Twists on Dewey Avenue. It's a 10 year old barbershop with a well-known presence in the community. Nutrition charts, STD prevention and other posters targeted towards healthy lifestyles hang on the walls next to models sporting the newest hairstyles.

"I’m just gonna take your blood pressure. I’m not a doctor. I’m not here to diagnose you,” says Phillips, “I'm gonna give you a screening so you can regulate it on your own and be mindful of your blood pressure."

Last year, Phillips agreed to take part in the Get It Done initiative, where local barbers and hairstylists are trained by health educators to check the blood pressure levels of their clients.

"We have a reading! And uh...it's a little high,” he says. “It’s 148 over 94, which is kind of high. That's stage one of high blood pressure"

Bradley is 26 years old and admits he rarely has his blood pressure checked. He says he has been having headaches and felt quite sluggish all day.

As Phillips was trained to do, he rechecks Bradley to make sure he's getting an accurate reading. And the numbers remained the same, "He can eat a banana and that can bring it down. That banana will eat up the sodium.”

“I need to go to Wilson Farms and eat a banana," says Bradley, laughing.

Phillips gives Bradley some additional informational guides on how to lower blood his pressure, "Sometimes it’s just what we eat that makes our blood pressure high.”

When asked what he had to eat that day Bradley says, “OK, I had 3, no, 4 hot sausages…”

“Now see that’s a lot of sodium and it’s greasy food,” says Phillips jumping in. “And like he said, that was for breakfast and his blood pressure is still high."

Phillips says high blood pressure is considered a silent killer--effecting 1 in 4 people in Rochester, "1 in 4 so 1, 2, 3, 4, well we have one and look how many people we have in the building so you have to be mindful of it."

Phyllis Jackson is a registered nurse and community outreach specialist. She says there are 9 other trained barbers and stylists in the city doing what Phillips does every day, "It's generally called that because it doesn’t have overt symptoms. If they have symptoms usually people say I have these terrible headaches or my vision is funny"

Jackson says the goal is to catch high blood pressure in minorities where rates are most often higher, primarily because they're the group that is least likely to get their levels checked regularly by physicians.

"People are not gonna come to them,” says Jackson. “Especially young black males which make up a high percentage of the barber shop business. Young black females are a high percentage of the beauty shop business. They are not as likely to go to a physician’s office unless there is a problem."

Jackson says uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart attack and stroke and in some cases, kidney disease.

Within a year the Get It Done program has helped physician's offices around the city document more than 56,000 people who need help controlling their high blood pressure.

"We have to go where people are if we do that we're more able to get them to participate in what we're trying to do,” Jackson says. “Beauty shops and barber shops are historically places in the African-American and Latino community where people have long standing relationships. It's a logical way to go."

Barber Phillips agrees, "It's a pillar of the community. We're counselors we're doctors we're everything. Everything we do is for the community, so why not offer more services. They come to us daily not just to look good but to feel better."

Community outreach specialist Jackson says the proper diet, watching sodium intake and exercise are the main ways to controlling high blood pressure, "Known fact: if you have hypertension and you lose 10 pounds your blood pressure will go down 2-3 points. So there are things that can be done to modify it and bring it control. It will never go away but it can be controlled as long as you control the factors that cause it."

Phillips says on any given day his shop has about 100 clients. And out of that 100 he'll test blood pressure levels of about 10-20 people. He's sent a handful of people to the Emergency Room because their levels were dangerously high and according to the Get It Done program, when asked who their primary care physician was, they wrote down Phillips' name.

When told he was listed as primary care provider, Phillips reacted with surprise, “Wow! No, I didn’t (know that). Dr. Phillips! Hahahaha! It makes me feel I’m doing what I'm supposed to do. If I talk to 10 people and I help 1, I did my job, and that's real. That’s priceless."