As barber Anthony Gathers gives a loyal customer of 20 years a haircut, another customer gets out of his chair and starts to strap on a blood-pressure monitor while chatting with Gathers. After a minute or two the customer slides off the cuff and checks his levels.
The health check is certainly one Gathers didn’t see coming when he opened AGeez Hair Center in 1996.
“I just like to cut hair. It was a passion of mine and that’s why I got into it,” Gathers said over the buzz of clippers. “I found out later on this is more a greeting place and a meeting place for young men, older men, kids and everything else.
Gathers describes how, in African American culture, the barbershop is a center of the community where barbers are often viewed as leaders and conversation igniters. Gathers is now using his influence to inspire healthier living.
Representatives from the American Heart Association approached Gathers at AGeez Hair Center several years ago, asking him to install blood pressure monitors in their two locations in Chandler and Phoenix.
The reason is simple: African American men suffer from heart disease at a higher rate than other demographics. Blood-pressure monitors can show signs of hypertension, which can lead to heart disease. Monitoring hypertension using via blood-pressure monitors can show signs of heart disease.
“In our state, we have found that a history of hypertension in African American men also raised their mortality rate more than any other minority population or population of the status quo,” said Olga Davis, a health literacy investigator at the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center who is working with Gathers on community outreach.
Davis said African American men are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease compared to non-Hispanic white men. According to the Heart Association, more than 44 percent of African Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease.
The concept of partnering barbershops and blood-pressure monitors started in 2005, when the Heart Association partnered with the national Association of Black Cardiologists and the Black Nurses Association of the Greater Phoenix Area to make visits to barber shops to check customers’ blood pressure. The intent was to raise awareness of the prevalence of heart disease in African American men, but the program ended shortly after it began.
The Southwest research picked up the program with a twist, by working with Gathers to turn barbers into community health advocates, promoting better living and “health literacy. ”
“I thought it was a great idea. Anything to help another person, another human being, I’m down with,” Gathers said.
The community gathering place of barbershops allows conversations about health to happen in a safe place.
“They are trained to administer the blood pressure cuff but also to begin talking about health promotion,” Davis said. “Making sure they understand their health is important to them and their families but it’s also important to them” in making a difference.
“We’re gathering the wonderful rich resources of the community and foundationally those rich resources are the barbers,” said Davis. “The trust that their customers have in them. The trust that the barbers have begun to develop with us as being partners with them as university researchers and scholars helps for all of us to make a difference in that community.”
And it’s important for the barbers to push for a dialogue that is necessary but can be uncomfortable, Gathers said.
“A lot of black men don’t like to go to the doctor at all,” Gathers said, speaking of the thoughts some men have: ‘We’re ‘alright, we’re tough, we’re rough’ you know,” Gathers said. “Some of us don’t have the insurance to go and if we do we feel that we’re invincible sometimes.”
Gathers has seen his customers change.
“Some people go and put the cuff on themselves and they want to know where they are at,” Gathers said. “Or if somebody doesn’t know they say, ‘sure check my blood pressure.’ Then we educate them on it.”
If a customer has a high blood pressure, Gathers recommends they visit a doctor. Most important, customers are starting to become more aware of their own health issues.
“They get used to it. When they get used to it they start asking and want to know [more],” Gathers said.
With the success that Gathers is seeing in his barbershop, Davis hopes to expand the concept to African American women at beauty salons.