SSM Health funds health and education outreach in a barbershop

January 15, 2020

Convenient location makes it easy for black men to ask medical questions, get screenings


Pop in for a haircut, have your blood pressure checked. Stop by for a shave, get a flu shot. Need to be tested for diabetes? Men in Madison, Wisconsin, can do that, too, and also pick up information on wellness classes — all at a popular barbershop.


Through grants from SSM Health, the Men's Health & Education Center opened in 2016 at JP Hair Design in Madison. The center is a project of the Madison-based nonprofit Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, founded in 2007. Aaron Perry, founder and president, has one goal: to improve the health — and therefore the lives — of African-American men across Dane County.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of high blood pressure in African Americans is among the highest in the world. More than 40 percent of African Americans have hypertension, and heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for African-American men. SSM Health reports that in Wisconsin, African-American men have a life expectancy seven years shorter than Caucasian men, and they suffer higher rates of diabetes, obesity and cancer as well.

Meeting of the minds
"Our partnership with RLWA started when two ideas converged," said Damond Boatwright, SSM Health's regional president of operations in Wisconsin. "We wanted to get closer to the root causes of social determinants in health and touch on the disparities for those hit hardest. Jennifer Ellestad, community relations manager for SSM Health here, and I structured a grant program to help generate innovative projects that would reach populations we have struggled to connect with."

Clients at the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association Men's Health & Education Center get their no-cost blood pressure screenings from Edgewood College nursing students. The center is located inside JP Hair Design, a popular black barbershop in Madison, Wisconsin.

Enter Perry, who was seeking grants to fund his vision to offer health screenings and health education materials inside a barbershop. For seven long years, every grant he had applied for was denied. Then, in 2015, Perry approached SSM Health. "We gave Aaron a three-year grant for $90,000," Boatwright said. Perry said SSM Health has since continued to fund the program with $30,000 annual grants.

Perry, an insulin-dependent diabetic, first had the idea for a barbershop health center over a decade ago. Sitting in a barber's chair, he overheard casual conversations about sports, family life, politics and religion. Customers also spoke openly about personal health issues, and about their reluctance to see a doctor. "Many men don't schedule medical appointments and when they do, they don't keep them," Perry said. "Yet here they were, talking about health concerns where they felt comfortable and welcome — in a space where no medical practitioners were present to help them."

Ironman Triathlete
Perry competes in an Ironman Triathlon in 2005. He was the first black man with diabetes to complete the grueling endurance competition. He said people researching diabetes online reached out to him for information and advice about managing their disease.

Perry knew men with diabetes would be receptive to ways they could better manage their illness, if he could just get that information to them. He recalled that when word got out in 2005 that he was the first African-American man with diabetes to complete an Ironman Triathlon, he started getting emails from diabetics of all races all over the world, asking how he did it and whether he could help them manage their disease.

"Most of the people who reached out were not even athletes," Perry said. They were newly diagnosed with diabetes and were searching the Internet for information when they came across a website referencing his participation in a triathlon. He said they wanted to know the same thing he wanted to know when he was 29 and newly diagnosed with diabetes: "Am I going to die?"

Perry founded the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association with the aim of providing information that could help all people with diabetes improve their health outcomes. As he dove deeper into research and spoke with many men with diabetes, he found there was a major race-based disparity in access to appropriate treatment. "Most of the white diabetics I spoke with had all the supplies they needed, including glucose monitors, insulin pumps, diabetes educators and a nutritionist. The black community didn't have adequate supplies," he said. Perry narrowed the focus of the association, to address those health disparities.

Spencer Johnson styles Jeremiah Edwards’ hair at JP Hair Design in Madison, Wisconsin. Edwards faces the entrance to the Men’s Health & Education Center, which opened inside the barbershop in 2016. The center is funded through grants from SSM Health. Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal

Measuring success
So far, Perry reported, well over 4,000 men have gotten health screenings or health information at the barbershop health center.

Boatwright noted that SSM Health is interested in starting to measure outcomes for the men served there. "That's tricky," he said, "because not everyone who comes in to see one of our doctors says he was referred by the barbershop. But we're working to have better conversations around referrals in primary care visits, follow-ups and reports of improved or worsening health outcomes. We want to get a baseline sense of how we're doing."

Boatwright said he knows the center is making a difference. He recalled a man who stopped in several times to talk about his family's history of diabetes. "He didn't have a doctor, but after three or four chats with the staff (at the barbershop health center), he made a medical appointment. He has since learned that he also has diabetes, and now he's on medication and feeling much better."

Men's Health Poster

Jeff "JP" Patterson, the barbershop owner, said he is convinced that some of his customers will live longer because of the men's health and education center.

Lots of buzz
Word about the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association Men's Health & Education Center has spread well beyond Dane County. In November 2017, Perry was a guest on Megyn Kelly's show on NBC-TV. A year later, Perry was recognized as one of TIME magazine's 2018 "50 Most Influential People in Health Care." The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association was named the top innovative nonprofit at the 2018 Wisconsin Innovation Awards.

Yoga class
The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association offers yoga as part of its focus on the physical and mental health of black men. The yoga class meets in a renovated space adjacent to the Men's Health and Education Center at JP Hair Design. The annex has a private room used for mental health and substance abuse counseling.

"We'd always believed in the idea for the center, and then SSM took a chance on us," Perry said. "Today, the center is a win-win for Madison and for Wisconsin, and hopefully Dane County will become the healthiest county. Men here deserve to be healthy and to have better longevity."

Last summer, Perry gave a personal tour of the center to Laura Kaiser, SSM Health's president and chief executive, who was accompanied by Boatwright. "She believes health care is a fundamental right, and she declared the center as a best practice, one that should be emulated in other cities," Boatwright said of Kaiser.

Perry said his organization has been contacted by 20 physicians and people from about a dozen states considering replicating the barbershop health center.

In addition to improving the health of the barbershop's customers, the center also may be changing attitudes about medical care. Like Perry, Boatwright is a longtime customer at JP Hair Design. "A few months ago, I was sitting there in the chair in between two other men getting haircuts," Boatwright said. "When their conversation jumped to one man's visit with a primary care physician, he reported that it just wasn't 'that scary.' That warmed my heart, and put a big smile on my face."

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