UAB Medical Students Mix Haircuts with Health Care

By Susannah Felts

Barbershops provide a relaxed atmosphere for SNMA screenings. Assistant dean Anjanetta Foster (middle) and chapter president Whitney McNeil (right) attend to a patient in downtown Birmingham.

During her second week at the UAB School of Medicine, 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 recalls.

The procedure was unusual for another reason: It didn’t take place in a medical facility. Instead, McNeil is more likely to find her patients in Birmingham barbershops.

Her screenings are part of a volunteer effort organized by UAB’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), an organization founded in 1964 at Meharry and Howard University medical schools to advocate for minorities in medicine.

Most minority students at the School of Medicine join SNMA’s ranks, says Anjanetta Foster, M.D., assistant dean for diversity and multicultural affairs. The group holds community health screenings several times a year, checking for warning signs of hypertension and diabetes and counseling the public about preventing and finding help for these common but sometimes avoidable conditions.

Hair Treatment

SNMA members often seek locations like barbershops and beauty salons—places where people “just relax and hang out,” notes McNeil, the current SNMA chapter president. There the doctors-in-training also find a ready audience of mainly African-American residents. “Blacks are disproportionately affected by the consequences of high blood pressure,” Foster notes. “And we often see a lack of understanding about how to treat it, or why it should be treated.”

SNMA’s outreach brings care to individuals who rarely, if ever, receive it. And it provides a less intimidating experience for patients, who often feel more at ease with a doctor of their own race, Foster explains. On Labor Day weekend last year, the group conducted screenings for the 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 McNeil did, or as Foster did at a recent screening where two women were found to have near stroke-level blood pressure.

Encouraging Diversity

In addition to screenings, SNMA organizes the annual Teen Summit, drawing more than 100 Birmingham-area high school students. The one-day event includes preparation for the ACT college entrance exam; a forum with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals; and meetings with college representatives. While the summit’s broad goal is to prepare teens for college, it also helps dispel any doubts about pursuing a health-care career, supporting SNMA’s mission to increase diversity in the medical community. “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. “Without SNMA providing an example, we might have lost that person as a physician.”

McNeil, who grew up in Birmingham, says participating in SNMA has “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 with McNeil’s assessment: “If the students go out and affect one person’s life, they can say, ‘I’ve accomplished something today.’”

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