That’s according to new findings from the Smidt Heart Institute published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, for which a team of scientists studied 319 African-American men at high risk of heart attack and stroke recruited from 52 barbershops in the Los Angeles area.
For the study, the men were randomly assigned to two groups. Men in the first group met with barbers who encouraged them to speak with specially trained pharmacists during their monthly barbershop appointments.
During their visit to the barbershop, the pharmacists would assess the participants and prescribe appropriate medication. Any monitored blood tests and progress notes were sent to the patron’s primary care provider.
In the second group, barbers encouraged the men to seek advice from their respective primary care providers on treatment and lifestyle changes. Patrons were given pamphlets and blood pressure tips while getting their haircuts. There were no pharmacists involved inside the barbershop.
At the start of the study, the average top pressure number (or systolic blood pressure) averaged 154. After six months, it fell by 9 points for customers just given advice and by 27 points for those who saw pharmacists.
Two-thirds of the men who met with both their barbers and pharmacists were able to bring their unhealthy systolic blood pressure levels into the healthy range at that six-month mark.
Only 11.7 percent of the men in the second group experienced a similar difference in the same time period.
Black men have especially high rates of high blood pressure — a top reading (systolic) over 130 or a bottom one over 80 — and the problems it can cause, such as strokes and heart attacks. Only half of Americans with high pressure have it under control; many don't even know they have the condition.
Marc Sims, a 43-year-old records clerk at a law firm, was a participant of the barbershop and pharmacist group. He didn't know he had high pressure — 175 over 125 — and when he came into the barbershop, the pharmacist said he was at risk of having a stroke.
"It woke me up," said Sims, who has a young son. "All I could think about was me having a stroke and not being here for him. It was time to get my health right."
Medicines lowered his pressure to 125 over 95.
"Barbershops are a uniquely popular meeting place for African-American men," Dr. Ronald Victor, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and author of the study, told the Associated Press. “And many have gone every other week to the same barber for many years. It almost has a social club feel to it, a delightful, friendly environment" that makes it ideal for improving health.
Victor’s own hypertension was diagnosed by a barber in Dallas during his first barbershop-based study in the 1990s, he said in a news release. That study incorporated 17 Dallas shops, but no pharmacists. The results were modest at best.
But for the new research, the team “added a pharmacist into the mix" so medicines could be prescribed on the spot, he said. "Once you have hypertension, it requires a lifetime commitment to taking medications and making lifestyle changes. It is often challenging to get people who need blood pressure medication to take them, even as costs and side effects have gone down over the years. With this program, we have been able to overcome that barrier."
Victor and his team are now onto the next step: to determine if the benefits they found can be sustained for another six months and in black men with more moderate blood pressure levels.
– The Associated Press contributed to this story.