Shave, haircut and a cholesterol check, please
In Mark Hunter’s perfect world, a man can walk into his local barber shop and get a little off the sides along with tests of his blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, and know his danger of getting prostate cancer.
It’s a plan that Hunter, the Winnebago County Health Department’s black male health coordinator, puts into action in his job of reaching out to a segment of the community that he sees as, generally, at high risk for serious health problems but with low access to health-care solutions.
“Our specialty is doing the unconventional and we know we have to do that in order to reach the men that we need to serve,” Hunter said, “because men, as a rule, whether black, white or Hispanic have two phases of health. We’re either alive or we’re dead.
“We take free screenings and free health information to all parts of the community —
churches, barber shops, homeless shelters, community health fairs — any place that will let us in.”
Hunter said his job grew out of a 1999 community health study that showed that black male life expectancy and premature mortality for black men in the county “were off the chart" compared to white males.
“The median life expectancy for black males in the county in 1999 was 59.8 compared to like 74 for white males. That’s huge. And 63 percent of black males were dying before age 65 compared to only 28 percent of white males.”
The health department’s response to the study’s findings was to fund the position that Hunter, who was a human relations resource specialist at Rockford School District at the time, applied for and received.
“My job is one of the few tax levy-funded jobs here,” Hunter said. “It’s also supported by some state health department funds and I think that speaks to the commitment of the health department.
“When they were confronted with these statistics, they could have said ‘You know, this is a real problem, we really should do something about this so let’s try to get some grants and pull together a program.’ Well, you know how unstable grants are, if you get them at all. They could have gone that way, but they chose to make black male health a priority and to put some hard dollars behind it.”
Since he was beginning a new approach to delivering health service and information to a population that wasn’t actively seeking it, Hunter said, he observed how information and services were being delivered at the time, introduced himself to the community and then invited the community to meet him halfway and address the issue.
What developed is the Black Male Health Community Action Team, a group of volunteers that includes active and retired nurses, members of the clergy and employees of the city of Rockford and Rockford Housing Authority. The group has received help from Dr. Baron Harper, who has given his time and has received funding from the OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center Foundation.
In testing for prostate cancer, which includes a blood draw for a prostate-specific antigen test, Hunter said a local urologist allows the program to refer men to him regardless of their ability to pay.
“So, anyway, we have gone into African-American barber shops and we’ve done the health screenings right there,” Hunter said. “It’s not the usual place you would consider to have this kind of health screening and this kind of health-education opportunity.
“It’s not like an assembly line kind of thing. We don’t just push people through. We really pride ourselves on taking time with people. As they get their health results, we are using it as a healthy lifestyle-education opportunity.”
He said results of the finger-stick cholesterol and glucose test are available to the men immediately, but results of the blood draw for prostate cancer testing take some time, so participants are asked for contact information that allows the program to get the results to them.
“We make sure that, if they have any readings or things that are cause for concern, that they also have our contact information,” Hunter said. “Another thing the program does is it tries to make connections between folks who need health care and the health-care system so, whenever possible, we make medical referrals. Crusader Clinic has been a great partner in this.”
The program keeps a full-time presence in the community with automatic self-testing blood pressure kiosks at Vern’s Barber Shop; Booker Washington Community Center; and Ubiquity Records.
“Again, those aren’t traditional places where you would see those things,” Hunter said. “You would expect to see them in drug stores but, whatever we do, we try to think about where we’re going to be able to reach men and those aren’t always in the traditional places.”
Hunter said the most recent statistics he has on changes in life expectancy and premature mortality are from 2003 when life expectancy for African-American males was up to age 64 and death before age 65 had decreased to 46 percent.
“We would love to take credit for all of that,” Hunter said, “but we know we can’t do that. We do hope that what we’re doing is creating an atmosphere where men are getting their health on the radar screen and taking the active steps that are necessary.”
Although the program’s name is race specific, Hunter said that really isn’t a concern.
“We serve everybody,” he said. “If someone of another race came in and wanted to be tested, he’s going to get our very best. We pride ourselves on giving our best effort every time and everyone in this program is committed. We’re out there because we want to be.”
Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.