Dr. Stephen Thomas

January 26, 2017

Health Services Administration Professor and Director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health Equity Stephen Thomas is one of the founders of a growing movement to incorporate flu shots, blood sugar tests, blood pressure checks, and health-related information and counseling into the most central location of many African American neighborhoods: the barbershop.

The Baltimore Sun reported on a recently launched Kaiser Permanente program in Baltimore, focusing its story on the New Beginnings Unisex Barbershop in West Baltimore. There, on a recent day, customers had their blood sugar and weight checked, consulted with a doctor right in the shop, got their flu shots, and picked up medical literature.

From the article: “The program is part of a growing movement by insurers and others to address health disparities that make racial minorities more prone to certain illnesses. The health companies hope that by going to one of the most frequented and trusted institutions in the African-American community they can encourage residents to get preventive care that can help fend off fatal illnesses, such as colon cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

Dr. Thomas is a veteran of barbershop programs like this, having started multiple programs in Pittsburgh and Prince George’s County and studied them for more than a decade. His work in Prince George’s County inspired Cigna’s national medical director for health disparities, Dr. Christina Stasiuk. In the story Dr. Stasiuk says, “We needed to flex our communication style and identify who is the trusted person in the community. Barbershops are really where everyone goes, from the grocery bagger at Safeway to the senator.”

Dr. Stasiuk was so impressed with Dr. Thomas’ program that she convinced Cigna to expand its program into Prince George’s County, and now 10 barbershops participate. In the Cigna program, 36 barbers so far have been trained to discuss colon cancer with their clients and encourage screenings.

While some programs actually train barbers in basic medical tasks like taking blood pressure, Dr. Thomas believes that a barber’s role should simply be as educator and ambassador. He also does not encourage pop-up style programs. “We are there for the long haul,” he says in the article. “We are there to make these shops health information portals.”

The fledgling Kaiser program, which was launched in Baltimore late last year, focuses on flu shots, though the program also offers HIV tests, blood sugar screening, and blood pressure tests on busy Fridays and Saturdays, placing big signs outside the entrance and getting flyers out in the neighborhood, says the article.

New Beginnings shop owner Troy Staton equates Kaiser’s presence in his shop to other community outreach that the shop does. In the article, Staton says, "We are here to help the community and the health of the community is not as good as it should be.”

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Haircut and a flu shot, offering care at a West Baltimore barbershop
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