Some Maryland residents may be asking for a haircut, shave and a doctor's consultation at their local barber shop thanks to a new University of Maryland health program funded by a $5.9 million federal grant.

The university's Center for Health Equity received the grant from the National Institutes of Health to address racial disparities in Maryland health care. The center's research will focus on raising vaccination rates and lowering obesity rates among minorities, as well as addressing the role fathers can play in reducing infant mortality.

Part of this will be done at barber shops and beauty salons in an initiative the center has titled Health Advocates In-Reach and Research, or HAIR. Medical professionals there can provide education, encourage people to participate in clinical trials and even provide medical consultations, center Director Dr. Stephen Thomas said.

Researchers are also hoping to do outreach at parks, churches and other public places in minority neighborhoods.

"The aim here is to reach people where they live, work, play and worship," Thomas said. "We want to get out of the ivory tower and into communities."

Part of the issue, he added, is that health problems like obesity are concentrated in black and Hispanic communities. A degree of distrust in formal medicine, however, requires the center to be creative.

"We're talking about differences in health outcomes that cut along racial lines -- it's not simply a difference in statistics," Thomas said. "We have to address it in ways that are novel."

The grant comes less than a year after the university's School of Public Health released a study of public health in Prince George's County that found 34 percent of county residents are overweight and 35 percent are obese.

Thomas said the program would be the first of NIH's racial disparity grant recipients to look at a population rather than a single disease.

"What we're talking about here is a public health approach," he said. "We cannot simply wait for the diseases to happen before we act."