During her second week as a medical student, Whitney McNeil was performing a blood-sugar check when she got a shock. Instead of providing a numeric value, the glucose meter simply read "high." She alerted her supervisor, who told the patient to go straight to the emergency room. "I was worried that he might not make it," McNeil says.

Barbershops provide a relaxed atmosphere for health screenings. Assistant Dean Anjanetta Foster (middle) and medical student Whitney McNeil (right) attend to a patient in downtown Birmingham.
The procedure was unusual for another reason- it didn't take place in a medical facility. McNeil's patient was in a Birmingham barbershop.

This screening and others like it are part of a volunteer effort organized by UAB School of Medicine chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), an organization founded in 1964 to advocate for minorities in medicine. The chapter conducts community-based health screenings for hypertension and diabetes, and its members counsel the public about preventing and treating these common, sometimes avoidable conditions.

Hair treatment
SNMA members often seek locations like barbershops and beauty salons-places where people "just relax and hang out," says McNeil, the SNMA chapter president. There the doctors-in-training also find a ready audience of mainly African-American patrons, owners and employees.

And it provides a less intimidating experience for patients, who often feel more at ease with a doctor of their own race, says Anjanetta Foster, M.D., assistant dean for diversity and multicultural affairs, who also volunteers.

"Blacks are disproportionately affected by the consequences of high blood pressure," says Foster. "And we often see a lack of understanding about how to treat it or why it should be treated."

The student outreach brings care to individuals who rarely, if ever, receive it. This past year, the group conducted screenings for the Labor Day weekend March for Health Equity in Selma and Montgomery. "We found people who hadn't been to a doctor in 30 years. It's not that they don't want to; there's just no access," McNeil says.

At the barbershop screenings, most people have health insurance, "but they often have health concerns they just don't want to think about," McNeil says. "We help open their eyes and make them realize they need to see a doctor."

The students point out opportunities for free and low-cost health care, such as the M-Power Clinic, which involves volunteers from the SOM's Equal Access Birmingham group. They also steer high-risk patients to the emergency room as Foster did at a recent screening where two women were found to have near stroke-level blood pressure.

Encouraging diversity
The SNMA also organizes the annual Teen Summit for more than 100 Birmingham-area high-school students. The one-day event includes preparation assistance for the ACT college entrance exam, meetings with college representatives and a forum with doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

The summit's broad goal is to prepare teens for college, but it also helps dispel any doubts about pursuing a health-care career. "We've had teens say, 'I was told by a counselor that I should become an engineer, but I've always wanted to be a doctor,' " says Foster, who works to identify, recruit and retain minority medical students. Without this experience, a potential physician could have been lost, she says.

McNeil, who grew up in Birmingham, says these activities have "changed how I think about medicine." And she feels that the group is making a definite difference in the city. "We're the ones who need to make people aware of what's going on in these communities," she says. "If we don't do it, who will?"

Foster agrees: "If the students go out and affect one person's life, they can say, 'I've accomplished something today.'"