ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah University students are working to help train those in the first line of defense against skin cancer — cosmetologists.
Students at the university spent months working on melanoma research in order to provide local cosmetologists with the best ways to identify skin lesions on the scalp.
The project was started by SUU donor Stephen Gibson who got the idea after his hairdresser found a melanoma lesion on his scalp during a routine haircut in September 2018.
“I felt at that time that hairdressers could really help with early detection how it helped with me,” he said.
To find out how many hairstylists are trained to recognize potentially cancerous lesions, Gibson employed the help of SUU students Brandon Johnson, Abigail Bishop, Andrew Jones and Colin Rosander, all of whom are members of the Rural Health Scholars program at the university.
Gibson incentivized the program, and the students were able to get to work, designing the research and passing it through the Institutional Review Board for approval. The team created a survey that was sent to local hairstylists to gauge how much they know about recognizing skin cancer.
Over the summer, Johnson led the other students through 83 surveys at hair salons and barbershops scattered across Washington and Iron counties. The survey sought to find out much the cosmetologists knew about skin lesions and if they could recognize them.
Bishop told St. George News the program was based on a previous study at a university in California. He worked with the group to design the survey, make appointments and interview the hairdressers.
Hairstylists who participated in the survey were entered into a drawing for the chance to win cash prizes, Johnson said.
Bishop, Rosander and Jones created the survey and contacted the hair salons. After the survey, hairdressers were provided information on how to receive an “Eyes on Cancer” certification, which teaches cosmetologists how to identify skin lesions and refer clients to medical professionals at no cost to the hairstylists.
“What was found was high interest among hairdressers of being a service to their clients and spotting possible lesions,” Gibson said. “They were quite interested in getting more education, and that really moves to step two, which is them becoming certified.”
The certification teaches hairstylists what malignant lesions might look like and how to gently and respectfully refer a client to their dermatologist or another medical professional.
“We don’t want our hairdressers to be in the diagnosis business,” Gibson said. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re training them just to spot things that might be and then refer them to their dermatologists, just like my hairdresser referred me to my dermatologist.”
Following the survey, students reported the outreach aspect of the project was mostly successful since while only six of the 83 hairstylists who participated in the survey became certified, all of the cosmetologists at Hair Nation in Cedar City earned their certification.
Gibson said this isn’t the end for the project, and he hopes other Southern Utah institutions, like Dixie State University, will pick up the research.
“While we started with 83 stylists and barbers in Cedar City, we hope that university students in St. George will pick up the baton and we can add another 117 or a couple hundred more,” Gibson said.
Bishop said there is definitely room for improvement and she is looking forward to adapting the study to learn more. The survey, she said, was just the preliminary step the group needed to establish a need for education in the area.
The group will continue to offer free certification to hairstylists, however, they are re-routing the project to step away from the certification, Bishop said. Instead, the group is working to link hairstylists to licensed dermatologists.
Research opportunities like this open doors for undergraduate students. Bishop said she used this project on her applications when applying to medical school. More than that, the experience taught her how numerous people can come together to benefit the overall health of the community.
The group is planning to present their research at the annual research symposium at SUU on Nov. 18.
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