Walking into your average barbershop one may come across the usual tools: a couple of pairs of clippers and trimmers alongside various combs and brushes. As a client of local barber, Eric Muhammad, one can walk in for a haircut—and come out with something life-changing.
A New You Barbershop and Beauty Salon is located in the heart of Inglewood, California. Two large palm trees line the sidewalks outside Eric’s shop, appearing like columns set to welcome in clients for a haircut and conversation.
Amid the conversation that echoes off the walls inside Eric’s shop, boisterous laughter and banter can be heard among all in attendance, and more often than not nothing is left off the table to discuss.
“We talk about everything in the barbershop. No conversation is off limits—so health is a major topic,” said Muhammad.
According to an experiment reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, taking medicine to people—as opposed to the doing it the other way around—has a profound effect.
This is especially true for those hesitant about visiting a doctor, as they are more prone to take the status of their health seriously when confronted about their issues in a familiar environment.
Due to the challenging results of the experiment, Dr. Ronald Victor of the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles came up with a study that would find ways to reach out to African-American men with blood pressure levels at an alarmingly high rate. Victor thought of no better place to start than local barbershops—particularly Muhammad’s.
Almost 50 percent of all Americans have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.
“Black men have the highest rates of high-blood-pressure-related disability and death of any group in the United States,” said Victor.
Victor knew about Muhammad’s barbershop, and called him up to explain the study, with a request for action.
That’s when Muhammad decided to take matters into his own hands—literally. After Dr. Victor’s explanation, the barber of 23-years joined forces with him, and turned Muhammad’s shop into a makeshift medical unit. He also reached out to others who could help.
“When dealing with the community you have to get out of your comfort zone and go to them,” says Muhammad. “I went out from barbershop to barbershop talking to the owners and barbers about the study, and signing them up to participate.”
At first, the response from the community veered from what Muhammad was expecting.
“Some were very happy to hear about the program from the start, others were worried that this may have been a test or trial medication or some sort of experimental drug,” said Mohammed.
Following the backlash, many neighborhood barbers didn’t warm up to the idea of turning their shop for cutting and styling hair into a cardiology department.
Not willing to give up on his community, Muhammad pushed onward with the project, and allowed Dr. Victor’s research staff to settle in, in a home away from home.
A standard aneroid sphygmomanometer, or blood pressure machine, was carted into Muhammad’s barbershop and set up near a station.
“[The researchers] would give the other barbers a tutorial on how to use it, and I must say it was very user friendly,” said Muhammad.
One client in particular expressed his shock upon finding out his blood pressure reading after sitting in Muhammad’s chair and stated, “[the researchers] showed me a pamphlet saying I was stroke-bound, that really scared me—it changed my life.”
Over the course of the study, Muhammad was pleased with his clients’ taking their heart health into consideration, but also concerned about some of the results that initially came to light.
“Sadly I had several clients that were eligible to enroll [in the study] but choose not to; two have had strokes,” said Muhammad.
However, those who did participate were able to lower their blood pressure and inspire other barbershop goers and owners to participate as well.
According to the findings of a report from the barbershop study involving 319 volunteers, “there were large changes in the men’s blood pressure, which fell from an average of 152.8 mm of mercury to 125.8 mm.”
Muhammad found the overall results “astonishing.”
Looking back on the study, Muhammad reflects on its impact on his own life.
“I think the largest emotional impact is [the volunteers’] gratefulness for me helping them and, in some of their own words, ‘saving their lives,’” said Muhammad. “Now I don’t know if that is the case or not—however, it is an honor to know that someone feels that way as a result of my work.”
Since the study, Muhammad has incorporated an electric green air hockey table top game into the middle of his shop and hired a DJ to spin behind a booth—all with the intention of sparking the attention of possible clients wavering outside of his shop.
“In my profession we make our clients feel good everyday by making them look good, so a health program in the barbershop is a no brainer—it goes hand and hand,” said Muhammad.
As for Muhammad’s hopes in continuing the study? “My ultimate goal is to have this program implemented in every barbershop in America. Participation around the world would be amazing!”