The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2018, The New York Times Company).
Heart disease is the most common killer of men in the United States, and high blood pressure is one of the greatest risk factors for heart disease. Despite knowing this for some time, we have had a hard time getting patients to comply with recommendations and medications.
A recent study shows that the means of communication may be as important as the message itself, maybe even more so. Also, it suggests that health care need not take place in a doctor’s office — or be provided by a physician — to be effective.
It might, as in this study, take place in a barbershop, an institution that has long played a significant social, economic and cultural role in African-American life. A setting that fosters both confidentiality and camaraderie seems like a good place to try reaching men to talk about hypertension.
Years ago, researchers ran an experiment in which they trained barbers to check blood pressure and refer people with high levels to physicians. One group received this intervention; a control group received pamphlets handed out by barbers. Blood pressure values were only minimally improved in the intervention group. This was thought to be because even when patients were referred to primary care physicians, those doctors rarely treated their condition appropriately.
The more recent study went further, removing physicians almost entirely from the process. The control group consisted of barbers who encouraged lifestyle modification or referred customers with high blood pressure to physicians. In the intervention group, barbers screened patients, then handed them off to pharmacists who met with customers in the barbershops. They treated patients with medications and lifestyle changes according to set protocols, then updated physicians on what they had done.
The results were impressive. Six months into the trial, systolic blood pressure (the higher of the two blood pressure measures) in the control group had dropped about 9 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) to 145.4, which is still high.
In the intervention group, though, blood pressure had dropped 27 mm Hg to 125.8, which is close to “normal.” If we define the goal of blood pressure management to be less than 130/80, more than 63 percent of the intervention group achieved it, compared with less than 12 percent of the control group.
It gets better. The rate of cohort retention — measuring how many of the patients remained plugged into the study and care throughout the entire process — was 95 percent.
The barbershop customers were part of a population that is traditionally hard to reach. More than half of participants lived in households earning less than $50,000 a year, and more than 40 percent in households earning less than $25,000. On average, they were overweight or obese, about a third smoked, and more than a fifth had diabetes. Yet the improvement in blood pressure was more than three times that of the average of previous pharmacist-based interventions seeking to improve blood pressure, and many of those had focused on populations easier to reach.
One reason this trial succeeded where others failed is that it adapted its intervention to overcome barriers. When barbers weren’t consistently screening customers by measuring their blood pressure, pharmacists stepped in to do that. When labs slowed things down, pharmacists brought measuring tests to the barbershops.
The larger implications of this study shouldn’t be ignored. Getting barbers involved meant health messages came from trusted members of the community. Locating the intervention in barbershops meant patients could receive care without inconvenience, with peer support. Using pharmacists meant that care could be delivered more efficiently.
Of course, this study is limited by the usual sorts of questions. Who will pay for this in the real world? Who would do the training necessary to scale it up? Who would be responsible?
But those concerns reflect the shortcomings of our current health care system, not those of the study. Health care reimbursement in the United States usually focuses on the clinical encounter, at a physician office or hospital. This reflects a belief that care is best offered there, even when evidence says otherwise. Coverage and payment focus on the individual patient, not on the community, even when research shows that the latter is more effective. Care often requires the participation of a physician, even when studies prove that it can be delivered well in many cases by midlevel practitioners.
It’s important to remember that we have the health care system we do because of history and economics, not because of studies that show it’s optimally designed. Changes are most often made within the current framework; those that buck the system are usually met with more resistance.
Retail clinics may provide better access, but many professional organizations oppose them. Lifestyle changes may do more to improve health than drugs. But getting the system to recognize that diet and exercise might prevent diabetes, for example — and to pay for that intervention — requires huge efforts and decades of time.
If we really want to improve health on a large scale, especially with populations distrustful of the health care system, it seems we need to go to where they are; to use people they trust to deliver messages; and to allow care to occur without much of the infrastructure usually demanded for billing. Such efforts may not be traditional, but they may deliver much better results.