Fighting Diabetes One Cut at a Time

Many black men will go years before scheduling a doctor’s appointment, but won’t let a few weeks pass without a visit to the barber. That may sound like a bad joke, but in the experience of Dr. Bill Releford, it’s the sad reality that prodded him to create the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program in December 2007. “Historically, black-owned barbershops are a place where African American men have always felt comfortable. It’s the only place where you’ll see the whole spectrum of the black socioeconomic strata,” says Releford, 50, a podiatric surgeon dedicated to reducing diabetes-related amputations.

Releford, author of 5 Colors a Day to Better Health (Milligan Books; $19.95), knew there was no better place than a barbershop to help black men feel comfortable talking about their health. He was all too familiar with the attitudes of most black men toward the medical profession–and the importance of changing the prevailing mindset. He created the Diabetic Amputation Prevention Foundation in 2000, and also founded the Releford Foot and Ankle Institute in 2007 in Inglewood, California. African American men, compared with white men, are more likely to be uninsured; they also experience higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease related to diabetes and hypertension. And they are less likely to get a checkup. Black men and women over the age of 44 have the highest instances of diagnosed diabetes in the U.S.

Initially, Releford approached the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association about creating brochures for African Americans. His idea was to feature black people on the cover and distribute the brochures in black communities. But the organizations took a more multicultural approach, because there wasn’t enough money to target each minority group with its own campaign, he says. Releford took up the cause himself and began the Black Barbershop Program, using $75,000 of his own money to start the nonprofit. And over the past 10 years, he has donated close to $175,000 from his personal savings to the Diabetic Amputation Prevention Program. “You can’t rely on traditional or government institutions to do everything. There are times when we need to be the first responders in our community,” says Releford.

Since the program’s inception, Releford has visited more than 375 barbershops and screened more than 12,000 men for diabetes and hypertension in 22 cities. With a $240,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2009 and a two-year $550,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health in November 2009, Releford is planning a barbershop tour to 50 cities using a network of more than 200 nonmedical volunteers and medically skilled doctors and nurses in cities such as Chicago; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and New York. Releford also partnered with the Prostate Cancer Foundation and will now add P.E.P Talks (Prostate Education Project) and prostate screenings to the barbershop visits.

In 2008 and 2009, the barbershop program received a series of sponsorships totaling $600,000 from the Abbott Fund, the nonprofit arm of Abbott, the global healthcare company. Releford also garnered funds from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer Inc. In 2009, the program’s costs came to roughly $600,000. This year, Releford expects his budget to be $1.5 million. Less than $5,000 of his budget comes from individual private donations.