This week, a man came to the Men’s Health & Education Center on Madison’s west side for a blood pressure screening. His blood pressure was a little high, and he started opening up about the health struggles of his aunt and grandmother.
Then he said, “I just want to get my brother some help, that’s why I’m really here,” then asked: “Do you guys do anything with substance abuse?”
The Men’s Health & Education Center is in the backroom of JP Hair Design, 584 Grand Canyon Dr. Aaron Perry started the center to to help teach the barbershop customers, who are mostly African-American men, about topics like obesity, diabetes and heart disease in a place they feel comfortable.
On Thursday, Perry was recognized for his efforts on Time Magazine’s 2018 “50 Most Influential People in Health Care" alongside the likes of Sen.Tammy Duckworth and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Perry is the founder of the nonprofit Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, with a mission to improve the health of African-American men in Dane County.
As of 2014, Wisconsin African-American men had a life expectancy 7 years shorter than white men, and African-Americans in Dane County suffer higher rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes than white populations.
Many of those health issues can be helped with better diet and more exercise, but men might not know they have a problem or how to treat it. At the Men’s Health & Education Center, visitors can check out an array of informational pamphlets and get blood pressure checks, oral health and body mass index screenings.
The idea for the clinic came from Perry’s own visits to the shop, where he heard men talk about their health issues like gout and tooth pain. But afterward, “they would pay for their hair cut, and they’re gone,” he said this spring.
“I’m thinking, men do actually talk about their health challenges, but we have to be better prepared as a community to respond to those,” he said.
The Time list looked for leaders “transforming health care right now,” evaluating professionals on originality, impact and quality.
Finding out he was on the list pleased and humbled him, Perry said, but didn’t completely shock him, and not just because Time had previously emailed him asking for a high resolution photo.
“Honestly, all this year has been just positive energy. I’m a man of faith, and God has his hands all over this,” Perry said. “I’m not surprised because this was guided by a higher power and I’m just doing the work.”
Part of this year’s good news included a grant that helped build his organization's capacity and expand services to more barber shops throughout Dane County.
The $300,000 Community Collaboration Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health helped kick-start Perry’s Black Men’s Wellness Sustainable Initiative. It expanded Perry’s model by connecting UW medical students and Edgewood College nursing students to area barbershops, where students provide in-shop services like blood pressure screenings and flu shots.
“Men are just starting understand what we’re doing, and they like the fact that it’s being offered from a place that they trust and they respect, and I can’t emphasize that enough,” Perry said.
And he’s made sure the research backs up his efforts, he said, serving on UW health committees and interviewing doctors. When planning for the center, his own doctor once walked in on Perry measuring the wall of the doctor’s office -- and then again measuring the floor. Today, visitors frequently tell him the Men’s Health & Education Center looks like a doctor’s office.
“Yep that was the plan!” Perry replies.
Perry sees the fruits of his labor daily.
“We’re consistently reaching the men that have been completely disconnected from health care not just for one, two, and three years, but we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years,” Perry said. “(We’re) able to connect them, not only to get them to understand their numbers, but we’re also helping them get health insurance.”
The RLWA also puts on an annual men’s health conference, and Perry is the captain of the local Black Men Run group, a national organization. This summer RLWA launched a “Brown Boys Read” initiative that pairs literacy promotion with education on fitness and nutrition.
Looking to the future, Perry wants to expand the actual space of the Men’s Health and Education Center.
“We need to get this space bigger because we have an ability to reach a significantly higher number of men,” Perry said. “If there’s anything we’ve learned along the way, it’s that this model clearly works.”
Eventually, he said, he wants to be the first federally qualified health center open in a barbershop in the nation, and then he wants to replicate the model across the U.S. — because Dane County isn’t the only area that struggles with this.
He hopes the Time commendation will generate donor support.
“This is a game changer and we know it,” Perry said.