To get a haircut at the Millennium Barber Salon in Silver Spring, a customer dons a mask and gets an infrared temperature check for the coronavirus. That has become the standard for many businesses as they reopen. But at Millennium, that’s just the beginning.
If that sounds more like a visit to a doctors’ office, that’s how the barbers at Millennium want it. The salon is one of 20 African American-owned barbershops in Maryland that operate in association with a network of Black health-care professionals — physicians, dentists, psychologists, nutritionists, among others.
Depending on how a customer answers the questionnaire, he or she may leave the barbershop with not only a haircut but also a list of doctors along with instructions for how to obtain health insurance and prepare healthier meals.
“We believe good looks and good health go hand in hand,” said Millennium owner Dexter Fields. “We just want to help our customers take better care of themselves.”
The barbershop health kiosk and physicians’ network was the brainchild of Andrew Suggs, a 32-year-old African American entrepreneur from Elkridge, Md. In 2016, he’d launched a business that helps barbershops book and schedule customers, called LiveChair. Then last year, as Suggs’s father began to suffer from congenital heart disease, he came up with some ways that barbershops could help prevent hypertension — a leading cause of heart disease that eventually took his dad’s life last month.
“I was looking for a way to make health care for Black men more accessible and also make health care more receptive,” Suggs said. “We know that Black men respond better to medical advice when it comes from a Black doctor, but many men don’t know how to find a doctor that suits them.”
In October, with a network of health-care providers in place, Suggs began equipping barbershops with weight scales, blood pressure equipment, literature about hypertension and the contact information for physician services. But that all came to a halt in March when the pandemic forced businesses deemed nonessential to close.
But what Suggs and shop owners like Fields are doing is essential when it comes to providing health resources to the Black community, in particular Black men.
“Why the barbershop model works is because of trust,” Suggs said. “When you think about it, how many people get that close to your face? Only your significant other, your child and your barber have that level of intimacy. We see our barbers on average for an hour, twice a month, for decades and our doctors maybe once a year for 15 minutes. We’ll tell the barber things we won’t tell the doctor, not to mention the spouse.”
Fields said, “I can look at the beginnings of a certain kind of balding spot on a customers’ head and know he’s been under a lot of stress without even asking about it. I might start by joking about which is better, Viagra or Cialis, but we end up getting to the heart of the matter: hypertension. And diet and exercise and meditation.”
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly put a spotlight on widespread racial health disparities, revealing the need for every imaginable kind of health-care intervention. The barbershop is especially important because of the need to reach and educate Black males at the earliest possible ages.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans ages 18 to 49 are two times as likely to die of heart disease as Whites. African Americans ages 35 to 64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than Whites.
At Millennium, barbershop talk turned to the recent death of Chadwick Boseman, 43, star of the film “Black Panther,” from colon cancer. Boseman had reportedly been diagnosed with the disease when he was 37.
“That means Black men should start screening for colon cancer in their 20s, if not their teens,” Suggs said.
Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, also has proved to be deadlier for Black people than their White counterparts. Contributing factors are social and structural inequities such as high rates of chronic diseases, low income, and jobs and homes that don’t allow for social distancing. The federal and state governments could certainly be doing more to improve health outcomes.
But so can Black men.
“We can help each other,” Suggs said. “I had a buddy who passed away from colon cancer when he was 30. We should tell our friends, know your family history. If you have a history of certain diseases, don’t wait until you are in your 50s to start being concerned about it.”
Fields said, “I can’t tell you how many men I’ve known who wait until there is an emergency or wait until the Black women in their lives set a fire under them and make them to go a doctor. We have to start taking more responsibility for our own lives.”
The barbershop-based health-care system that Suggs is attempting to build is set to expand into the District and Prince George’s County when the pandemic eases. But the timetable remains uncertain.
“We’re seeing the infection numbers in the D.C. area plateau,” Suggs said. “It appears that things are starting to subside. But we also see that wherever people let down their guard, the virus comes creeping back in.”
Fields added: “At the barbershop, we remind our customers to remain vigilant. If you come to us for a great haircut today, we want you to be alive and still looking good tomorrow.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.