Community Leaders, and Telemedicine, Can Help Narrow the Gap in Minority Men’s Health

My friend Waverly Willis may be the best barber in Cleveland.

He’s certainly the most helpful. Regularly, he has nurses and other medical professionals visit his barber shops, and those in the non-profit Urban Barber Association he founded, to provide patrons free blood pressure screenings and health care advice.

Dr. Charles Modlin Cleveland Clinic kidney transplant surgeon

Dr. Charles Modlin is a kidney transplant surgeon, urologist and founder and director of Cleveland Clinic’s Minority Men’s Health Center. (Source: Cleveland Clinic)

Waverly is cutting hair and saving lives. Not a bad combination. And it’s indicative of the approach more minority men must take to ensure they and their brethren live long, full and healthy lives.

Because all too many of us are not.

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The life expectancy for African American men is more than seven years less than for white men, and they have the highest rates of lung, prostate and colon cancers of any population in the world. Stroke kills 180 percent more black men than it does whites, and Hispanic men are twice as likely as white men to have liver cancer. From diabetes to high pressure to liver disease, the numbers are similarly sobering.

And that’s why more of us in the US medical profession, as well as community influencers like Waverly, must take more meaningful and pragmatic steps to educate and encourage minority men to seek out medical support on a regular basis.

Barriers to healthcare are many

Minority men lag other demographics in healthcare for a variety of reasons, some genetic but most related to socio-economic factors. Poverty. Lack of access to quality healthcare, lack of insurance, living in food deserts with limited access to fruits, vegetables and healthy food.

Waverly (left) and Dr. Modlin (right) at one of the barbershops Waverly offers customers screenings and healthcare advice from volunteer nurses at no charge. (Source: Waverly Willis)

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is lingering distrust of medical professionals, a tradition in many families dating back generations. On many occasions, I’ve had to implore men of color that a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence. Even my own father and namesake, Charles Modlin, felt cancer was going to kill him. And there was no point in trying to get chemotherapy.

Only his trust in me, his son, a medical professional, convinced him to seek treatment. And he was cured of colorectal cancer, and a few years later, prostate cancer. I often wonder if I had not been a physician, would he have gone through with the further diagnosis and treatment?

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The barriers to minority men’s health disparities are many, and contribute to fewer men seeking regular and preventative care. It’s why we founded the Cleveland Clinic’s Minority Men’s Health Center in 2003, and why we have hosted an annual Minority Men’s Health Fair for 16 years.

Without these initiatives, and others like it in numerous other U.S. communities, the healthcare disparity would be even more staggering. But an annual fair and specialty clinics, while reaching thousands, are only making a minimal impact on the millions of men who ignore, fear or feel hopeless in addressing their medical symptoms.

While we need more clinics and fairs, what we really need are more practical methods for reaching minority men. And that means, we need to further leverage technology advancements that can more easily link disenfranchised demographics to the healthcare system.

Seeing the doctor, via smartphone

Telemedicine, for example, has more potential to engage patients and maintain relationships with them than perhaps any other tactic. In fact, it’s one of the ways Waverly and I stay connected. Besides being a healthcare advocate, Waverly is a patient, too.

Dr. Charles Modlin Cleveland Clinic telemedicine

Dr. Modlin (right) and patient Waverly Willis (left) during a telemedicine appointment. (Source: Cleveland Clinic)

In 2015, in his role as a community leader and men’s health advocate, he attended our annual health fair. While Waverly regularly gets medical check-ups, he took the opportunity that day and underwent a simple urine test that detected microscopic blood in his urine that prompted further evaluation leading to a diagnosis of a large kidney cancer.

Less than three weeks later, Waverly had surgery at Cleveland Clinic to remove the cancerous kidney, and began follow-up treatment. Today, he’s cancer-free – and has redoubled his efforts to actively testify to men everywhere the importance of being diligent in getting regular medical treatment and in taking measures to live healthier lives.

Waverly certainly sees the benefit in using telemedicine for follow-up visits, or basic screenings. He can engage me, or other medical professionals, via his smartphone or laptop – right from the barber chair, if he wants. Think of the advantages of that approach for elderly men with limited access to public transportation, or young men, paid hourly, who can ill afford unpaid leave from work to go to the doctor’s office.

Minority men can live longer lives. And we can encourage them to do so, from the doctor’s office and the barber chair. High-tech and no-tech. Together, let’s make it happen.

Charles Modlin, M.D., MBA and fellow, American College of Surgeons, is a kidney transplant surgeon, urologist and founder and director of the Minority Men’s Health Center of Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological Institute and executive director of minority health for Cleveland Clinic.

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