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La. barber promotes healthy living for clients

Amber Sandoval-Griffin

NEW ORLEANS — After 26 years as a hair stylist in Mid-City, Danny Townsend, owner of Danny’s Divine Designs, has added a new item to his menu of service options: health tips.

While he makes small talk with clients about their everyday lives, Townsend now makes sure to ask each person about his health. The barber has signed on with a Tulane University initiative that uses hair salons and barber shops to promote healthy living.

The Prevention Research Center of Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine launched “Talk Shop” in June, using 25 barber shops in a trial run to see if stylists can influence their clients’ health choices.

The center has sent health officials to teach stylists how to talk to their clients about eating habits, exercising, managing blood pressure and other health topics. The program also provides each shop with the “Feel Good Guide: How to Stay Healthy,” a 28-page booklet that offers advice about healthy living, recipe cards and a listing of free clinics and other services in the New Orleans area.

“The ‘Feel Good Guide’ focuses on the simple things we can all do to improve our health,” said Lisa Hoffman, the center’s communications and training coordinator. It also will help people notice symptoms that might indicate a condition for which they need medical care, she said.

At Danny’s Divine Designs on South Broad Street, customers are handed a guide in the waiting area. Once they hop into a chair, Townsend asks what they think of the booklet or brings up a topic related to their personal health.

As he snips, shaves and sculpts clients’ hair, he asks them simple questions, like what they had for lunch that day. But with regular customers making up 90 percent of his business, Townsend said he already knows details about the health or lifestyle of each.

When Sterling Higgins, a sports referee and fitness buff, came in for a trim recently, Townsend already knew he enjoys running — and asked him if he ran that morning.

“Barbers and beauticians are often more than just a stylist,” Townsend said. “They build a trust with clients and learn about their lives.”

And because of this relationship, Townsend and his fellow stylists say their customers are more open to talking about specific health issues such as diabetes or dialysis. They also tend to listen to the hair stylists’ advice. Townsend has already persuaded several male customers to get a prostate cancer screening, which Tulane Medical Center is offering at no charge.

The Tulane center started the health program by handing out surveys and training the barbers in how to talk with their customers about health topics. There are six test shops and six shops without booklets or training, to use as a comparison.

The center distributed 2,600 guides. Analysis of an end-of-month survey at all 12 shops will indicate how customers’ lifestyle choices have changed in the past two months.

An additional 13 shops, not part of the survey, received the informational materials as part of the center’s effort to get the word out to as many shops as possible. Participating shops are in Algiers, the Central Business District, Central City, Gentilly, eastern New Orleans and Mid-City, among other neighborhoods.

The program primarily targets African Americans, who are disproportionately affected by heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

Townsend, his employees and customers said the barber shop is a natural place to reach African American residents and create a buzz about healthier lifestyle choices.

“Why not talk about health?” said Ann Bridges, who brings her family to the Broad Street shop once a week. “You talk about everything else.”

(The Times-Picayune)