DALLAS - At the Lancaster Kiest Barbershop in Oak Cliff, there is more than small talk and haircuts. A blood pressure cuff is now as much a tool of the trade as scissors and shaving crème.
"In the 15th century, barbers were your doctors," said "Smitty" Smith, a barber of 37 years. "They did bloodletting; they pulled teeth; they did it all. So, we're just going back to our roots."
Smith began offering blood pressure checks as part of a UT Southwestern study that began in 2006.
Black men are 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. They are also 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
It's a dangerous trend doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas have noticed for years, and it's one reason why researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center decided to figure out if they could cut the numbers. "Cut" turned out to be a key part of the solution.
Researchers chose to conduct the study at 17 Dallas County barbershops. Barbers were chosen over churches and doctors.
"The one place young black men go is black barbershops," said Dr. Robert Haley, a UT Southwestern epidemiologist and senior author of the study. "And, the black barbershop is a very good environment. It's a nurturing environment. The young black men have a good relationship with their barber. They're trusted companions and providers."
"They don't really trust a doctor," added Smith of his clients. "But, they will come here because they trust their barber."
Experts say the barbershop is a good place to test blood pressure because clients are more relaxed. Therefore, readings should be more accurate than under the more tense conditions of a doctor's office.
Even so, when 42-year-old Will Marshall's blood pressure was tested for the first time by the barber, it was dangerously high.
"And at the urging of my barber, Mr. Smith, he asked me to go to the doctor," Marshall said. "Actually, [he] urged me to go to the doctor otherwise I probably would not have gone."
As a result, doctors discovered Marshall had two pituitary tumors in his brain. Both were safely removed in surgery.
"That blood pressure check definitely saved my life, definitely," Marshall said.
Researchers tested 1,300 clients. In some of the shops, clients with high blood pressure were only given brochures. In others, barbers had been trained to advise medical care. At the end of the study, control of hypertension in the "interventional" group of clients had risen from 33.8 percent at the start of the study to 53.7 percent at the end.
The results of the study are printed in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
In fact, researchers think many more young, black men could be helped if barbershops across the country would offer blood pressure screening.
"We would prevent about 800 strokes, about the same number of heart attacks and about 900 deaths just in the first year nationwide," Haley said. "So, it would have a significant health impact."
So, while a haircut may cost $25 at the Lancaster Kiest Barbershop, there is no extra charge for a life-saving pressure check.