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More Than a Haircut

Students Offer Preventative Health Screenings at Neighborhood Barbershops

Two Black women sitting at a table smiling towards the camera.
Danielle Reed, first-year medical student (left) and Amira Marshall, pre-med student majoring in human developmental science, recently volunteered to provide blood pressure screenings in the community. Photos courtesy of Shanaya Sidhu.

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Each month, a group of University of California San Diego School of Medicine students can be found at Freshly Faded Barber + Shop in San Diego’s North Park community conducting blood pressure screenings as a complement to the haircuts and shaves that the Black-owned barbershop specializes in.

“We want people to be more aware that hypertension is really pervasive in our communities,” said Danielle Reed, first-year medical student and co-president of Fade Hypertension, the student interest group that coordinates the free blood pressure screenings. “High blood pressure is something that you don't always notice is happening like some other health conditions. It’s something that may be easy to brush aside, we say things like ‘I'm just stressed.’ But that can really build up and become detrimental to your health.”

Fade Hypertension was created by three medical students five years ago. Manny Keiler, Edgar Vega and Kevin Gilbert, recent UC San Diego School of Medicine graduates, forged relationships at a local barbershop which led to comfortable and trusted conversations and inquiries about health concerns between barbers and customers, and the three young and relatable medical students who looked like them. The once informal conversations led to other students and physicians entering the barbershop for health screenings and conversations on a variety of health topics including colorectal cancer, skin cancer and other dermatologic conditions.

two female students conducting a blood pressure check on a male seated at a table
School of Medicine students and students from the Black Pre-Med Society conduct blood pressure screenings at barbershops.

Today medical students can participate in Fade Hypertension through a student interest group, which provides volunteer opportunities to address health disparities in cardiovascular disease primarily through screenings for hypertension and an elective course, Fade Hypertension:  Interventions in the Community (SOMI 236). The course’s objectives include learning about the pathophysiology, diagnosis, prevention, management and impacts of hypertension. Equally as important, students in the class are encouraged to nurture trusted partnerships with barbers to promote cardiovascular health, to develop communication skills when engaging with diverse communities in non-clinical settings and to learn about the needs and concerns of community members.  

“For communities with limited access or infrequent engagement with the health care system, this is an opportunity to identify individuals at risk for hypertension and to promote cardiovascular health education and other health concerns,” said Maria Rosario (Happy) Araneta, PhD, MPH, associate dean of Diversity and Community Partnerships at School of Medicine. “For students, this is an opportunity to engage with San Diego’s diverse communities, to enhance their cultural humility and communicate and listen about the values and aspirations of community members, in their space, in their terms.”

At the events, students, along with a faculty advisor, provide free blood-pressure screenings and share information related to high blood pressure causes and prevention, cardiovascular disease and making healthy choices. Focusing their screening events at places like barbershops and cultural events, the students are committed to raising awareness around the risks of cardiovascular disease and hypertension within a community setting.

Addressing a community need

Historically barbershops have provided a safe space for Black men to gather for so much more than a haircut or a shave. The shops provide space to be vulnerable, to share concerns, to grow community and to connect or reconnect with one another.

“Some of my first memories of really engaging with the broader community outside of my family comes from going to barbershops,” said Taariq Woods, first-year medical student and co-president of Fade Hypertension. “I remember my dad forcing me to go. I had to be around all of these people and it was weird. But then after the years, you have mentors and people who can give you advice. To now enter that space through the medical school and impart knowledge about hypertension and how it’s important, that is really fulfilling.”

The American Heart Association notes that about 55% of Black adults have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Additionally, Black individuals tend to have disproportionately high rates of more severe high blood pressure that often develops earlier in life.

“One of my main reasons for going into medicine is wanting to help the Black community or communities of color in general,” said Reed. “So going into barbershops, which are oftentimes a really Black space and helping the community this way, is why I got involved in Fade Hypertension.”

Male medical student putting a blood pressure cuff on the arm of a man sitting at a table.
First-year medical student Taariq Woods, performs a blood pressure screening at the recent San Diego Tết (Lunar) Festival.

For Freshly Faded Barber + Shop owner and operator, Derrick Banks, bringing health awareness to his patrons and the larger community is motivation enough to keep the partnership with Fade Hypertension active.

“This partnership began three years ago,” said Banks. “We wanted to meet people where there they are, in a place where men are already willing to open up and be vulnerable. So, it was a no brainer to bring in young (future) physicians and doctors, people of color to come in and do these health screenings.”

In addition to raising awareness and getting conversations started in the community, the Fade Hypertension student interest group has partnered with the Black Pre-Med Society, UC San Diego’s first pre-med organization dedicated to cultivating the success of Black pre-med and pre-health students. Pre-med students are encouraged to volunteer alongside the medical students at these community events. Both Woods and Reed agree that being able to help the community and mentor undergraduate students has been a fun and rewarding opportunity in addition to the community engagement they experience through community events and barbershop visits.  

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