It was a day of saving lives on May 3 when African American men strolled into their favorite barbershop and were met with a surprise: An innovative and groundbreaking effort, the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program (BBHOP) had set up testing for free diabetes and high blood pressure screenings.
While most black men are reluctant to go to the doctor, Dr. Bill Releford, founder of BBHOP, realized that the barbershop was the perfect setting to test black men who routinely shun medical checkups.

“We tested about 1,000 men that day throughout California that day and many of the men were walking around undetected and undiagnosed for hypertension and diabetes,” said Dr. Releford. “Many of them were in their 30s. Some had to be rushed to the hospital because their blood pressure was so high.”

Each year, thousands of African American men are diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes that lead to complications and even death. “Unfortunately, African American men have the lowest life expectancy of any segment of the U.S. population,” Releford pointed out.

BBHOP is the first initiative to exclusively address health care disparities in African American men. It provides on site testing in barbershops throughout California with a goal of screening over 500,000 African American men by the year 2011.

A recent press conference to announce the launch of BBHOP was held at Inglewood’s Finest Barbershop in Inglewood, Calif. BBHOP kicked off the free diabetes and high blood pressure screenings targeted at black men in over 100 black owned barbershops from Sacramento to San Diego. African American men experience the lowest life expectancy rate of any segment in American society, with statistics indicating that 40 percent of African American men die prematurely from cardiovascular disease as compared to 21 percent of white men.

Realizing the reluctance of black men to get tested, BBHOP organizers appealed to wives, aunts, sisters, mothers and grandmothers to urge their men to take advantage of the free diabetes and high blood pressure screenings at participating barbershops. The program plans to launch a national effort in major cities across the country. “The black barbershop has traditionally been a place where black men from all segments of society could come together to talk about life, family, and relationships. Now I am hoping that we can start talking about our health,” said Donte Kelley, BBHOP coordinator.

“We have been getting calls from all over the country from parties who want to duplicate and replicate the program,” said Dr. Releford, who is also founder of the Diabetic Amputation Prevention Foundation (DAP). “This program will provide culturally appropriate material and outreach programs geared to reach African American men. “Also joining the BBHOP effort was the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), also known as the Legends of Basketball. Retired basketball players in each targeted city will be lending their support to the BBHOP to urge black men to get tested. NBA Legend Norm Nixon, the program’s official spokesman, said that testing targeting African American men was long overdue. “For so long in our community, we have been compliant about our health,” said Nixon. “The barbershop is the perfect place to disseminate information about hypertension and diabetes because we have been congregating for years to get in touch with our culture. It’s where we talk about politics, sports, wives, children, and girlfriends.”

Assemblyman Mike Davis voiced his support for the program and announced that he, along with co-authors Assemblymen Mervyn Dymally and Curren Price had introduced Assembly Bill 2463, the Diabetes and Hypertension bill in the legislature to call more attention to target African American men with health disparities. The bill will award a grant of $120,000 to the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in conjunction with the Diabetic Amputation Prevention Foundation to conduct a diabetes and hypertension prevention and awareness pilot program in South Los Angeles.
Nixon urged more black men need to pay close attention to their health. “We have to learn how to mobilize and take care of ourselves,” he observed. “Diabetes and hypertension touches everybody.”
Others attending the BBHOP launch included Jack Lahidjani, chief executive officer of the Miracle Mile Medical Center, Demetri Forcey, BBHOP coordinator; Pamela L. Blakely, podiatrist; Donte Kelly, barber at Inglewood’s Finest Barbershop; and Jesse Johnson, president of 100 Black Men of Long Beach.