A barbershop is not always just a place to get your hair cut and beard trimmed.

Kevin Briggs and his barber, Cedron Emerson, both liken a barbershop to a country club. As Briggs puts it: “Barbershops are wonderful environments for so many social experiences, whether it be storytelling or keeping up with what’s going on in the community.”

Customers develop a deep trust with whoever “does their hair.”

“Barbers are great at listening,” said Briggs, senior director of laboratory and respiratory care services for Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s coastal region. “When you sit in the barber’s chair, you really get to develop a relationship with him over time.”

So, one day when Briggs was at Emerson’s downtown Wilmington shop, Just Cut It, he floated an idea. He thought a certain segment of the community – those who avoid going to the doctor – might be willing to have health screenings if they were offered at Just Cut It.

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Emerson – whose wife is Cara Emerson, a long-time nurse at New Hanover – loved the idea. He found it to be an ideal collaboration since, as he said, “Barbers are sort of like therapists.”

The barbershop initiative took off in 2017 – the same time hospital leaders were exploring innovative ways to invest in health equity. “Hospital leaders were beginning to try meeting people where they are,” Briggs said. “And barbershops are one place people congregate. We knew it would take all types of collaborations and likely some unconventional ones.”

Trust was key, since many Black people don’t necessarily trust the healthcare establishment. (The healthcare establishment has given them ample reason for that.) “In our community, some people are reluctant to see a doctor and get tested,” Briggs said. “We knew there could be some resistance.”

Breaking down barriers

To counter some of that resistance, Briggs and Sarah Arthur, director of community health & equity, worked to recruit team members who reflected the communities they wanted to reach.

“The whole point of this is to help remove barriers,” said Savonne Berrios, a Novant Health nurse manager who’s been volunteering for the effort for several years. “When we have representation out in the community, it’s a win for everyone.”

But this volunteer opportunity is open to everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity. While Briggs founded the effort and is still heavily involved as a volunteer, he said the work is now primarily supported by Novant Health’s internal business resource groups (BRGs), particularly the Black + African American and Latino/Hispanic BRGs.

Briggs and Arthur recruited other community partners – faith groups, the YMCA, Med North, New Hanover County Health and Human Services and UNC-Wilmington – to join the effort.

The first event proved so successful that the effort quickly expanded from one to three and now six, including one shop that caters to a Latino clientele, Briggs said. Novant Health volunteers, including nurses, lab professionals, pharmacists and some non-clinicians who serve as greeters, come in for a couple of hours at a time. These “pop-up” clinics typically take place twice a month.

Volunteers check blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol and offer vaccinations. Perhaps most importantly, they help people get connected to a healthcare provider if they don’t have one.

Berrios loves seeing people who grew up in Wilmington become volunteers. “When barbershop patrons see someone they know from their own neighborhood, it puts them immediately at ease,” she said. “There’s already a level of trust there. They’re more likely to come over and get screened.”

Kevin Briggs at Barbershop 1

Volunteers find the barbershop initiative to be rewarding. “Our volunteers – the people who are boots on the ground – get a lot out of this,” Briggs said. “It brings the message right back home of why we do what we do.”

Berrios explained what she gets from the experience: “As a nurse manager, when I see patients in the hospital, they’re dealing with an illness and are often very nervous. But when we meet people at their barbershop or hair salon, they’re in their comfort zone. We can provide education and health screenings for people in an environment where they don’t feel threatened. We’re welcomed, and that’s so rewarding.”

Briggs said what makes the initiative special is the opportunity it presents to build trust. “This is not necessarily a high-volume initiative,” he added. “When you’re at the barber, you might see 10 or 20 people the whole time you’re there. This is a relationship initiative” that can lead to larger conversations around health and wellness.

While this initiative is outside Briggs’ job responsibilities, it’s very much in keeping with who he is. His parents both worked in textile mills, and his mom had a passion for community service. Briggs recalled a Thursday night ritual from childhood. He’d sit down at 8 p.m. to watch the Huxtables on “The Cosby Show” to see, he said, “what you can aspire to be. The husband was an OB-GYN, and the wife was an attorney. As a young African American growing up in a rural area, that stood out to me. It inspired me to go into healthcare.”

If we build it …

Some people hear about the health screenings and come to the barbershop just for that purpose. Others are there for a haircut and decide to have a screening because it’s been made easy. Still others are just passing by and stop in to find out what’s going on.

One unlikely client was a 72-year-old farmer who couldn’t recall ever going to a doctor. “He was willing to partake of this service because we met him where he was,” Briggs said.

Sometimes, the barbers themselves get screened. “Barbers are self-employed,” Emerson said. “They don’t often have the same healthcare coverage as people who work in the corporate world. A couple of barbers learned they had high blood pressure and have made lifestyle changes to try to get their numbers down.”

It’s not just men getting screened as a result of this effort. Some of the businesses involved are hair salons that primarily serve women. But Briggs added that women don’t typically share men’s reluctance about seeing a doctor: “Women at the shops are our best advocates. They help coerce men to partake in the screenings.”

Barbershop and salon owners are doing more than opening their doors. They’re actively encouraging clients and community members to take part. “The owner of Paola’s Hair Salon even went live on social media to invite people in,” Berrios said. “And it worked. It was very powerful.”

Meeting people where they are – and where they feel comfortable – turns out to be a powerful way to boost the health and wellness of an entire community.