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Turning Barbershops into Telehealth Centers (Contributed)

In urban neighborhoods, where Internet service and health care can be hard to access, a novel pilot project uses local barbershops and salons as wireless hubs and hypertension screening centers.

Recently I watched an episode of New Amsterdam, a TV medical drama. The show opened with some young men playing basketball in a playground across the street from a local barbershop. One of the players had a heart attack induced by undetected hypertension. In the real world, high blood pressure is a major health-care concern for African-American men.

However, the show’s medical director came up with a great idea: recruit barbers to be hypertension screeners. “Patients are best served in an environment where they are made comfortable by trusted members of their own community,” he said. 

Today, what was dramatic TV has become reality with a five-city, two-pilot project. This December, barbershops and hair salons in urban and rural communities will connect USB blood pressure cuffs to telehealth platforms via community networks to attack hypertension, the leading cause of strokes.

In Cleveland, one of the pilot locations, two Urban Kutz barbershops have been screening customers’ blood pressures for 12 years. Owner Waverly Willis, who is partnering with a local hospital to conduct the screenings, said, “I find at least 90 percent of my customers have high blood pressure, and many don’t know about the dangers of hypertension.” Currently, the barbers screen between 15 and 35 customers a week. The blood pressure reading for several customers was so high they were rushed to the emergency room.

By adding telehealth capabilities to the screening process, customers potentially can access educational content about stroke and heart attack prevention, hypertension and wellness programs. During the pilot, customers can download free telehealth software that enables them to set up home video consults with their own doctors. 

A New Community Broadband Anchor Institution

Discussions about telehealth in the media and elsewhere focus heavily on rural communities and their lack of health-care options. However, the problem of the underserved extends to urban areas as well.

Ron Deus is CEO of NetX, a regional wireless Internet service provider (ISP) in Cleveland. “What happens in the suburban and urban areas amounts to redlining,” said Deus. “Incumbents’ buildouts, upgrades and adoption efforts happen in the most profitable areas first. Areas just a mile or two away become digital deserts. A lot of incumbents are shareholder driven, so their first concerns are their profits and cherry-picking.”

Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned hospital, is aggressively marketing telehealth, according to Bill Callahan, director of Research and Policy at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “MetroHealth hospital, also in Cleveland, offers telehealth services, too. “If barbershops and hair salons were delivering telehealth through these hospitals, they possibly could drive new subscribers to DigitalC (a Cleveland-based civic tech collaborative) and Cleveland’s free wireless network in the Old Brooklyn section of town,” said Callahan.        

“I can see equipping barbershops with telehealth being successful, though you’d have to enforce very strict HIPAA guidelines for data security,” said Matt Larsen, owner of Vistabeam, a wireless ISP. “I would designate barbershops as ‘community anchor institutions,’ which are the magic words broadband industry people understand. Then you use telehealth to drive subscribers on the network in neighbor[hoods] around the barbershop.”

As Internet network hubs, urban barbershops are less costly to set up than in rural areas, and they are good locations for telehealth pilots. They are also great when it comes to word-of-mouth marketing. What’s needed is the right kind of grant to cover both broadband and telehealth for these urban locations.

While barbershops and salons can detect and help treat hypertension through wellness programs, telehealth on the network can also treat other illnesses that afflict African-Americans, such as diabetes, heart problems and various addictions using digital therapeutics, which require significant bandwidth and data storage.

“If a person’s medical experience has to be essentially live, and they need ultra-high reliability, speed and super low latency, then local mini data centers through the town can alleviate potential downsides,” said Catherine McNaught, manager of Emerging Applications Market Development at Corning. “You don't want to ship data clear across several states to a data center somewhere, crunch it and send it back. Many telehealth apps rely on cloud computing. It helps when users have cloud functions closer to where the data's being generated.”

Hypertension strikes everywhere, but particularly among African-Americans. They make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet 40 percent have hypertension while the number of deaths annually from stroke — 100,000 — is twice the number of other ethnic groups combined.  

Barbershops probably aren’t the first place you'd think of to hold the line in this fight against hypertension, but you have to go where the people are. Community broadband and telehealth help get you there.

Craig Settles assists cities and co-ops with business planning for broadband and telehealth. He has surveyed economic development professionals nationwide about the impact of telehealth and community broadband, and offers guidance for federal grant proposals for broadband, telehealth, or other digital projects.