Nobody cares about black men," Charles Modlin Sr., a foundry worker in New Castle, Ind., used to tell his son. Charles Jr., now a kidney transplant surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, had time to reflect on his father's words during medical school at Northwestern University and a residency at New York University Medical Center, where the emergency departments were filled with African-American men receiving treatment too late.
What Dad meant, Modlin realized, was that African-American men have to take responsibility for their own health care because no one else is going to do it for them — and that it was his son's duty to help them navigate a daunting system.
"He let me know that I'm where I am because of the sacrifices of my community, and it's my responsibility to use my education to help the community," Modlin says.
He got busy with that task in 2003, when he launched the first Minority Men's Health Fair with the help of colleagues from the Clinic's Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. About 30 people showed up to receive free health screenings for prostate cancer, HIV, glaucoma, diabetes and a number of other conditions that disproportionately affect African-American men.
"It was a huge effort," recalls Eric Klein, M.D., chair of the institute. "He created it from scratch based on his recognition of the data on the need to serve underserved populations — either because they don't have the resources to get medical care they need or because of real or perceived barriers getting into a major medical center."
To reach more men Modlin realized that he had to become even more evangelical. "You can't just show up at the churches," he says. "You have to develop a relationship with the senior leaders of the churches. You have to sit down with them and talk to accomplish anything. And then if the pastors endorse something, a lot of people will follow their recommendations."
He and other clinic volunteers started paying visits to barber shops, too, passing out literature, business cards and automatic blood pressure cuffs he'd purchased with a grant from the clinic. He began keeping flyers in his car to hand out if he passed a neighborhood basketball game on his way home from work. The strategy worked — each year, attendance has grown. More than 2,000 people showed up for the 2011 fair.
To follow up with patients at the fair, in 2004 Modlin set up a free clinic called the Minority Men's Health Center. Modlin and other volunteers see about 30 patients by appointment every Tuesday and Wednesday. Patients also receive referrals to other doctors and help with financial aid from the charity assistance program.
On a broader level, Modlin also hopes the health center and fair will remedy a shortage of clinical data on black men, thanks in part to a widespread mistrust of academic medical centers in the African-American community since the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. Patients are asked whether they'd like to voluntarily contribute blood and urine samples for future genomic research. So far, Modlin's Minority Men's Biobank, launched in 2009, has collected samples from more than 300 men. Researchers from around the world can access the blind data. Modlin hopes the data will help bring about new race-specific treatments for patients.
"There's increasing evidence that patients who are from different racial or ethnic backgrounds respond to medications differently," he says. His African-American kidney transplant patients, for instance, generally must receive a higher dosage of immunosuppressant medication than Caucasian patients.
This year was the first that Modlin's father, a National Senior Games champion who started running at age 64, didn't make the trip to the Minority Health Fair. He died in August 2010 at the age of 85, beating the odds by almost 15 years. Rest assured, he had his blood pressure checked regularly.