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Barbershops are a traditional gathering place for African-American men - a spot to talk politics and sports, and to gossip. Now some doctors in Los Angeles are hoping to make the barbershop a place for combating high blood pressure among black men. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Death rates from hypertension are three times higher in African-American men than white men of the same age, says Dr. Ronald Victor.

DR. RONALD VICTOR: Hypertension is one of the biggest reasons why the life expectancy of African-American men is only 69 years. That's a full decade less than white men in this country.

MERAJI: Victor heads the Center for Hypertension at Cedar's Sinai in Los Angeles. He just got $8.5 million this week from the National Institutes of Health to get barbers around the city trained to take their patient's blood pressure. He's working with Dr. Anthony Reid on the study. Reid's a cardiologist in nearby Inglewood, and most of his patients there are African-American.

DR. ANTHONY REID: My patients like me, but they love the barber. And they'd much rather go to see the barber than the doctor, typically.

VICTOR: And the idea is instead of starting out by asking patients as usual to come into the hallowed halls of medicine, we're bringing medicine to the people who need it.

MERAJI: Victor had success with something like this a few years ago in Dallas, Texas, but on a much smaller scale. Here's one of the barbers he worked with.

JAMES SMITH: I'm always the one that's always asking about - how's your wife, how's your children, how's your mom?

MERAJI: James Smith has been shaping up, lining up and fading men's hair in Dallas for 41 years. He says his customers are like family.

SMITH: So it was easy for me to do that and just say well, look brother, how's your blood pressure? You know, how's your health?

MERAJI: And, Smith says, of all the men he asked to check, only two said no.

SMITH: We still do it. We have the machine there. And now everybody's conscious of it. Some of them will come in and say hey, man, take my blood pressure, check my blood pressure. You know, they'll come in and ask you to check it. You don't have to check it for them.

MERAJI: The doctors say they'll work with about two dozen barbershops in LA and will track at-risk patients for at least 18 months. They have partnerships with low-cost health clinics. And Dr. Reid says he'll see patients who may not have insurance or are cash-strapped.

REID: The ultimate cost is lessened if we treat your hypertension now, as opposed to your kidney disease and hemodialysis or your stroke, heart failure, heart attack downstream.

MERAJI: If the Los Angeles study it goes well, the doctors say they hope to scale this up and it enlist barbers across the country to help fight hypertension. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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