Dr. Whitfield and Nissan Ballard with volunteer members of Earl K. Long Hospital Community Outreach Team

*Dr. Rani F. Whitfeld is a board certified family physician, but he’s also known across the country as the Hip-Hop Doc.  He’s been on CNN and on BET trying to get young inner-city children to think about their health, and to be more proactive about maintaining it.  

Now the Hip-Hop Doc, as he’s also known, with a big time assist from master barber Nissan Ballard, are hoping to get their health message through to a demographic some would say is among the most stubborn of all, African American men.  Whitfeld told of how the Barbershop Initiative all got started.

“A while ago I started noticing an influx of patients coming into my practice that were referred to me by my barber,” explained the Hip-Hop Doc.  “I’m not talking about two. I’m talking about maybe 15.  So, I called my barber and said ‘Man, what’s going on?’ And he was like ‘Basically Doc, these guys are sitting in my chair talking about how they’re hurting and they’re aching and so I said why don’t you go see my doctor’.”

To get a brother, who might feel as healthy as a horse, to go to the doctor is almost as difficult as leading a horse to the water AND making him drink.  It is a long standing cultural phenomenon that Whitfeld hopes to put to an end with another long standing cultural phenomenon; the black barber.

“I found with my communications with patients there are a lot of barriers,” he explained. “One of the barriers you have to deal with is a comfort level.  Whether it’s a distrust of the medical community or a comfort level with doctors.  (Nissan) has eliminated this discomforting feeling that they have with going to the doctor by just talking to them.  Almost like a bartender.”

Dr. Whitfield (center) and Nissan Ballard far left with volunteer members of Chi Eta Phi Nursing Sorority

Whitfeld admits there are several barbershop/medical screening initiatives out there, and readily applauds those participating in those initiatives for their efforts.  But he told us he and Mr. Ballard want to take the noble idea of patient screenings in a barbershop setting to the next level.  

“There are several of these concepts out there,” explained Whitfeld.  “One of those guys is Bill Wetherford in L.A., but his concept was to just screen the guys.  And I said we need to take this to the next level.  We need to not only get these guys screened to find out if they have high blood pressure or what have you, but we need to get them to the doctor.  The first health fair was in Baton Rouge and it encourages barbers to communicate with these guys and to get them to come to the doctors.”

The idea seems simple enough, but all that traveling does take money.  After all, Whitfeld and Nissan have their own respective businesses to run.   The Hip-Hop Doc told EURweb.com of his dream of national expansion for the program, but it’s going to take some time.  Now the duo have their eye on Houston, Texas.  

“This is being solely sponsored by Nissan and myself,” said Whitfeld.  “The next market we’re going to try and approach is probably going to be Houston, Texas at the first of the year.  Nissan is going to network. He’s a master barber and he does a lot of traveling for different companies underneath the barber shop network.  He’s going to the barbers on Mondays, when most barber shops are closed, and meet with these brothers and ask them if they can bring their doctors in and have this open conversation and dialogue. I’ll do a presentation on health and he’ll talk to the barbers about his impact on my practice and hopefully influence them with some pamphelets and information about how they can do the same things.”  

Rani has a bit of notoriety nationally and in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Lousiana, but when his personal barber started making referals the increase in business was noticable.

“For me (Nissan) did it.  I’m very popular in this local community.  I’ve got some national traction as well as the Hip-Hop Doc.  I use music and medicine to educate.  I’ve been on CNN, BET with my own initiative.  So, I’m well known but it still took somebody in the barber shop that you gotta trust.  He does razor shaves and all that stuff.  His barber shop is called ‘The Grooming Parlor’.  It’s not the typical barbershop.  You go in and you get an experience, more than just getting your hair cut.  So, he was able to make these guys feel comfortable by his conversation.  That’s how he was able to break those barriers down, just by having a conversation.  It’s proven to me that the barber can be not only impactful but can help improve and save lives in the community.”

Here Rani breaks down what a typical initiative would entail.

“I would give a lecture and talk about some of the reasons why men don’t go to the doctor. Like lack of insurance or access to health care.  Fear of finding out that something is wrong, believing that going to the doctor is a weakness.  The most common thing that I get is a lack of time, and not just African American men but all men just say ‘Man, I’m just too busy working.  I’m grinding trying to make ends meet.  I don’t have time to go.’ Well, when you have that heart attack or stroke and you’re disabled it’s too late then. The first thing is to dispel those myths, then go into some very basic statistics like the life expectancy of men is shorter than women, and African American men have the shortest life expectancy of all adults in the United States.  Another thing I was doing was compiling data.  I’m trying to compile some information and try to use it in a productive way.”

Outside The Grooming Parlor- Whitfield, Dr. Isaac Greggs (Former Band Director of SU Band), and Ballard

It is very likely that many of our readers have had a loved one die of a preventable disease. It may have only have taken a physician minutes to diagnose the problem, but that loved one was just too busy.  For me it was my Grandfather, my hands down most favorite person ever!  He raised his kids, then worked hard to try to raise my siblings and I.  He passed away three days after driving 10 hours to drop  me off at college in Batavia, NY.  He died of heart disease, a largely preventable death, but Whitfeld says it is still the number one killer in America.

“Ever since we’ve been keeping statistics there has only been one year in which heart disease hasn’t been the number one killer of people in the United States and that was in1918,” said Whitfeld.  “People were dying from the flu because of pnuemonia from the Flu Pandemic of 1918.  Heart disease is largely preventable and treatable with moderation, balanced lifestyle, excercise and eating properly.”

“I’m seeing heart disease or signs and symptoms of heart disease when people come in.  I’m seeing hypertension, diabetes and obesity,” said Rami when asked what ailemnts are most prevalent in his practice.  “Obesity is a major epidemic.  We spend $150 billion dollars a year on health care cost as it relates to obesity.  African American women are some of the most obese people in this country and that also affects African American men. These are the things that I’m seeing.  So I encourage my patients and my friends to eat moderately and healthy, excercise and, most importantly, see your doctor.   This brother can help determine whether you’re going to live or die.  African Americans tend to get to the doctor when the disease is later in the process and it’s treated less aggressively.  If they have the colorectal cancer like Eartha Kitt or Marvin Sapp’s wife, is they had seen the doctor sooner then maybe that could have been treated more aggresively and it would not have had a bad outcome.”  

The pilot program took place last month at The Grooming Parlor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Screenings included HIV, blood pressure, blood suger for diabetes and body mass index.  In addition, appointments for follow up on newly diagnosed problems were made before many of the men left the shop.  

“Many men like to project a “tough guy” image that suggests they can handle anything,” says Nissan Ballard, owner of the popular Baton Rouge establishment The Grooming Parlor. “Unfortunately, most men fail to realize the negative impact this attitude can have when it comes to staying atop of their health related issues. That’s why I’ve partnered with Dr. Whitfield, so that we can motivate more men to go see a doctor before it’s too late.”

For more information on the Barbershop Initiative log onto www.thebarbershopinitiative.com.