By Emily Park
When Janice Willis first opened her beauty salon in south Kansas City over 25 years ago, she couldn’t afford health insurance. Eventually, she found a plan she could afford. But even then, Willis says she was scared to go to the doctor because she still had to pay so much out of pocket.
Today, Willis is on a better insurance plan with her now-husband, but she remembers all too well what it was like not having access to affordable healthcare. And healthcare — or rather lack of access to it — is a topic that comes up frequently as Willis gets to know her salon clients.
“When you’re not married and you’re self-employed or you’re just not able to afford [healthcare], you’re just trying to make ends meet,” Willis says. “Believe this, people want to go get checked out but they just don’t have the money to do it.”
So when Melissa Robinson — president of the Black Health Care Coalition (BHCC) — asked Willis if she would be interested in hosting healthcare screenings at her salon, Willis immediately knew it was something she wanted to do.
Robinson’s request was part of a larger healthcare initiative the BHCC is running in partnership with Humana: More Healthy Days, which is geared toward closing minority healthcare gaps. The initiative is a part of Humana’s Bold Goal with the intention to improve health by 20 percent in the communities Humana serves by 2020.
While Humana is partnering with cities nationwide, bringing health screenings into the community in the same place someone goes to get their hair cut is exclusive to Kansas City. Willis’s salon — Chocolate City Hair Salon — is one of 16 shops in the KC metro so far, that will host healthcare screenings over the next several months.
“I’m African American, and I grew up in barber and beauty salons,” says Marvin Hill, Humana’s national public relations manager for the central region. “You know, a barbershop for myself personally and going to a beauty salon along with my mom or my daughters. So I understand from that perspective that it’s a part of the African American culture and it’s a trusted place.”
Hill says the idea of hosting screenings in barbershops and salons came from wanting to meet people where they already are in the community.
That’s why the Black Healthcare Coalition was the perfect partner to bring Humana’s idea to life. Before the health insurance company reached out to the BHCC last December, the coalition was already hosting health literacy stations — programming that encourages healthy living — in community locations like barbershops, churches, libraries, and grocery stores.
“We’re utilizing these places where it would be a natural fit, where people already are, where they feel comfortable,” says Robinson. “[People] have strong relationships with the individuals who are there to pour out health information in unassuming places.”
In the months since the coalition connected with Humana, they’ve been coordinating with the salons to train stylists on the best ways to bring up conversations about health, and ultimately get their customers to come back for a screening — something Willis says has come naturally.
“I’ve been doing this so long that people just feel comfortable when they come into my establishment, and they just let you know so much about their health problems,” Willis says. “Especially with African Americans, we are known not to go to the doctor ‘cause a lot of us don’t have health insurance or we just don’t feel comfortable going.”
In Jackson County, it’s estimated that African Americans are 11 percent less likely than their white counterparts to have health insurance. African Americans also have a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, infant mortality, and premature death.
More Healthy Days aims to combat these health disparities. The salon screenings not only test for common health issues like high cholesterol, diabetes, and hypertension but also looks for social determinants that can impact health.
“When you look at addressing the whole person, you have to look at those social determinants,” says Hill.
According to Hill, Humana has identified factors like food insecurity, social isolation, crime, housing problems, and lack of health insurance as social determinants that contribute to a higher likelihood of developing health problems.
Nurses conduct the screenings at the salons and help patients identify and learn how to address their health risks, as well as the factors in their home life that could be contributing to those concerns. The screenings also help patients find a place to go for continued care and help them find ways to pay for their care.
Robinson has been happy with the turnout she’s seen at the early screenings. She says one man who attended had been going to see a doctor at a shelter who wasn’t always readily available. When he came to the screening, he had run out of his blood pressure medication. The screening helped him learned where he could go to get his medication and helped him set up an appointment at the Whole Family Care Center. He had the medication he needed within 24 hours of the screening.
So far, there have only been two screenings, but Robinson says as they wrap up training with the other salons they plan to host one or two events a week over the next several months. Robinson says she hopes to recruit more salons to participate, and that the goal is to screen 1,000 people.
Humana’s Strategic Integration Leader Erica Anderson says the Kansas City salon screenings are a pilot test for Humana, and if all goes as planned, screenings in community places may become more common.
“After we have the finale in October, we’ll pick the learnings and the data from this particular pilot move that on to see if there are opportunities to scale it,” Anderson says.
For information about salons and barbershops participating in the initiative visit The Black Healthcare Coalition.
Emily Park is a Kansas City based journalist, passionate about giving a voice to those who don’t always have one. She is currently a staff writer at The Pitch where she writes in-depth news and feature stories. You can find Emily binging Netflix or Hulu, or hanging out with her playful pup, Sutton.