Convention highlights local medical salon project
Blacks who suffer from chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes or depression often avoid seeing a doctor.
Whether they fear bad news, medical bills they can't afford or insensitive treatment, many instead confess their health troubles at the beauty salon or barbershop -- traditional centers for trading health tips as well as gossip and love advice, said Dr. Stephen Thomas of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Minority Health.
With that cultural tradition in mind, Thomas and other doctors soon will begin a pilot program featured throughout the National Urban League's annual conference, which began Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
The conference, which runs through Wednesday at the convention center, will feature an appearance by President Bush on Monday. The meeting this year is being held in conjunction with the league's 85th anniversary.
Under the pilot program, stylists in salons and barbershops around the city work with doctors to get medical information out to their customers.
"We want these health professionals to come out of their ivory towers and go out into the neighborhoods," Thomas said after opening the conference's health pavilion, which is free and open to the public through Tuesday.
"They're sitting there in their offices wondering why people aren't coming to them, and people are dying. That's unacceptable."
National statistics have shown that blacks die more often -- in some cases, three times more often -- than whites from diabetes, high blood sugar, asthma, cancer, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases.
Health pavilion visitors can watch local actors' sessions at a mock barbershop to see how the pilot program will work when five shops around Pittsburgh begin offering the service on Sept. 16.
At each shop, stylists will be trained to look for symptoms of chronic conditions that their customers might discuss, Thomas said.
Stylists also will be equipped with laptops and high-speed Internet service so that they can consult a medical library for further information.
Thomas said much of the information distributed will focus on changing unhealthy habits such as smoking, a fatty diet and a sedentary lifestyle that plague the black community even more than the national average.
That emphasis on prevention was one of the program's selling points for Nate Mitchell, owner of Natural Choice salon in Oakland, which will participate. Over the past five years, Mitchell said he has learned to get more rest, exercise more often and adopt a healthier diet to try to stave off the adult-onset diabetes that afflicts several family members.
"My mother was like, 'Diabetes runs in the family,' and I'm like, 'No, bad eating habits run in the family,'" he said. "I'm just trying to break the chain."
Unhealthy lifestyle, along with an unwillingness or inability to get medical treatment, contributes to an average of 68 percent of black women becoming overweight or obese, along with 58 percent of black men. The national average for all ethnicities is 61 percent.
It also contributes to blacks contracting diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease at a higher rate than many other groups, actor Jay Jones points out during the skit at the conference.
Without seeking medical care or at least health information, he tells his barber, people can "walk around carrying something they don't know about," Jones says, leaning back to get his hair "cut."
"The best thing we can do is educate ourselves, because sometimes I think we're our own worst enemies," he said.
But blacks need different urban infrastructure as well as different habits to become healthier, said Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, a senior resident scholar at the National Urban League.
Urban neighborhoods, she said, tend to have corner stores with spotty produce rather than the lush fruits and vegetables typical of large suburban supermarkets.
Barbershops and beauty salons participating in the health care program created by the Center for Minority Health: