As a nurse and an African-American man, Jonathan Romero knows all too well the statistics about black people, especially black men, and their disparaging survival rates after receiving a cancer diagnosis.
In an effort to close the gap, Romero has decided to bring health care to a safe and sacred place where he said men openly share information — the local barbershop.
Recently, Romero along with about seven nursing and pre-medical students from Hampton University stood outside of BK’s Barbershop in Hampton for their first “Barbershop Outreach Project” event.
“We set up right at the side of the building and we just asked ‘would you be interested in talking to us about your health?'” he said.
The group conducted basic health screening measures like blood pressure, height, weight, body mass index, and glucose levels that for black men, sometimes go ignored, Romero said.
A nursing instructor at the historically black university and outreach coordinator for Hampton U’s Precision Medicine Outreach grant, Romero said the event granted a unique opportunity to spark conversations with 42 black men and bring one of the most affected but underrepresented groups into the discussion about cancer prevention, research, and treatment.
The Cancer Research Center’s Precision Medicine Outreach grant mandates the school contribute to an initiative that seeks to customize health care by collecting DNA and other data points from more than one million participants across the nation to reflect the population, “but if we’re not part of this, we will not be able to address these chronic health disparities,” Romero said.
According to a recent report from the American Cancer Society, black people are diagnosed with cancer in later stages of progression than white people.
And, even when they are diagnosed, black people are less likely than whites overall to survive at any stage of diagnosis.
The organization’s 2019 to 2021 Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans report outlines several factors that could account for the disparity including how socioeconomic barriers affect access to health care, but also, and like Romero said, the underrepresentation of minorities in clinical studies that develop treatments prohibits institutions from assessing treatment effectiveness among minority populations
“In 2012, only 17 percent of patients participating in industry-funded clinical trials were from a racial/ethnic minority group despite these groups representing one-third of the U.S. population,” the report reads.
Romero also said having African-American male health professionals on the project is just as important as performing the screenings and collecting the data.
Coming from a clinical setting before teaching and mentoring other African-American male nurses, Romero said he feels there’s a direct correlation between the scarcity of black men in medicine and the stigma black men hold around the medical system.
“Machismo or masculinity stubbornness will kill you in our community and has killed people in our community,” he said. “People don’t seek out care so others won’t think they’re weak.”
The Barbershop Outreach Project is one way the relationship between black men and the medical system can start to be remedied as Romero hopes to continue making health screenings and prevention part of barbershop banter.
Meetings about future barbershop events are in the works and Romero said he’s also working to partner with fraternity grad chapters and their health advocates at Hampton University.
“The campus reflects the neighborhood…we can make a difference that’s why we’re here, we’re here to serve,” he said.