A recent $200,000 grant from Cigna Foundation to the Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE) in the University of Maryland (UMD) School of Public Health will expand the center’s efforts to save lives in Black and Latino communities using authentic conversations and lifestyle behavior change strategies focused on promoting health and preventing disease.
Over the past two years, the Maryland Center for Health Equity’s HAIR program (Health Advocates In-reach and Research) trained staff at more than a thousand Black hair salons and barbershops to dispel myths and disinformation about COVID-19 and share accurate information about the coronavirus vaccine with their customers. Their work was part of a White House-backed “Shots at the Shop” initiative whose goal has been to increase lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates in Black, Latino and other communities of color through these trusted community messengers. The approach was critical to reaching people who have deep-rooted distrust of the medical and government establishments.
While the efforts to increase vaccination rates and provide education about the ongoing pandemic continue, M-CHE director Dr. Stephen Thomas wants to make sure that the engagement with underserved communities transcends the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on the need to address the holistic health and wellness needs unique to the community.
“The COVID pandemic has exposed a silver lining. The clinical partners who came to the shops to provide vaccinations are now open to addressing the underlying chronic diseases in our neighborhoods that can be addressed through early detection and lifestyle behavior change,” Dr. Thomas said.
Dr. Thomas has been building the HAIR program over the past 10 years, and the 40 participating barbers and stylists who have become community health advocates are adept at talking to their clients about sometimes awkward and sensitive topics, like colon cancer or mental health, and in encouraging preventive health care like diabetes and blood pressure screenings and annual flu shots. This has been made possible by previous support by CIGNA that helped to screen over 1,000 people for chronic disease risk factors on site in salons and shops. The award also helped establish the National Association of Barbers and Stylists for Health.
“We are excited about this innovative health equity and equality initiative to positively impact communities of color in Maryland,” said Monica Schmude, Cigna Mid Atlantic Market President. “Cigna is committed to creating healthy, vibrant communities for all and we are proud to partner with the Maryland Center of Health Equity to address health disparities in the communities we serve.”
With the latest support from CIGNA, Dr. Thomas and team are expanding the ways they engage marginalized and underserved communities and connect them to resources and care.
This includes a weekly town hall hosted by Dr. Thomas and former Tuskegee, Alabama Mayor Omar Neal over Zoom called “The Cutting Edge,” the creation of a culturally-tailored graphic zine that will be distributed through Maryland shops this fall, social media campaigns and a national conference to convene Black barbers and stylists commited to acting as health advocates planned for December 2022.
Partnerships like this one, which utilize culturally tailored community-based approaches to the delivery of healthcare information and even health services, may prove to be the best way to reduce and eventually eliminate long-standing health disparities.
“Early in the pandemic it became clear that trust was an important issue. We said, ‘why not go where people already have trust?,’” explained Dr. Thomas. “In the Black community, barbershops and hair salons are sacred spaces where authentic conversations can help people make informed decisions. And we believe that when people have the information they need, they will naturally gravitate towards saving their own lives. If we can do that here in Maryland, we can do that across the nation.”
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