Going to the doctor isn’t everyone’s favorite thing in the world, but it’s important both when you are sick and for preventive care. Men, however, are much more reluctant than women to go to the doctor, whether it’s for a regular checkup or for a pressing health concern. Even men who have insurance and a primary care physician often resist using the health care system. Most preventive care services are now fully covered for insured patients, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, so cost is rarely the issue in these cases. The main source of the disconnect between men and women in this case isn’t totally clear.
More than half of men surveyed by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) in 2007 said they had not seen their primary care physician for a physical exam within the past year. Nearly one in five men age 55 and older never received the recommended screening for colon cancer, and 29% said they wait “as long as possible” before seeking help when they feel sick or are in pain. That’s pretty risky behavior. Ignoring even a mild health concern until it goes away could actually make it worse if treatment is required. According the AAFP study, the following chart outlines the major factors preventing men from going to the doctor.
The most commonly cited reasons were that men didn’t feel sick, or sick enough, to seek medical help. The problem with this reasoning is feeling healthy doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy. High blood pressure and high cholesterol don’t have obvious symptoms, but these conditions put men at risk for potentially fatal medical problems, such as cardiovascular disease or stroke. Many cancers are easy to miss until they progress and become difficult to treat. The AAFP study also found that men tend to overstate how healthy they are in reality.
Another interesting finding of the study was the impact significant others can have on men’s health care decisions. “One of the biggest obstacles to improving the health of men is men themselves,” explained Rick Kellerman, M.D. and president of the AAFP. “They don’t make their health a priority. Fortunately, 78 percent of the men with a spouse or significant other surveyed say their spouse or significant other has some influence over their decision to go to the doctor.”
Men, at the very least, seem prepared to be talked into seeking medical attention, but women don’t appear to need much encouragement at all. According to the CDC, women are much more likely to seek medical care than men, particularly for annual exams and preventive care. Of course, this is largely because women are simply more accustomed to regular visits. Until recently when guidelines softened, an annual pelvic exam for females was considered a must, so most American women grew up conditioned to get regular checkups. Interestingly, several yearly screening recommendations, such as prostate exams, have grown more lax due to recent research.
Nevertheless, this disparity can’t be solely chalked up to biological differences. Men are much less likely to go to routine dental visits, as well, and men certainly don’t have inherently healthier teeth. One theory behind this gender disconnect with health care is the cultural myth that it is somehow a sign of weakness to seek medical help. In other words, men often fancy themselves too tough to get sick or need treatment. Some claim this mindset might even be somewhat genetic, as physically stronger males may have needed to jeopardize their health while hunting, for example.
In a study out of Rutgers, men with old-school notions of masculinity — those who believed the ideal man is the strong, silent type who does not complain about pain — were only half as likely as other men to seek preventive health care. Fear may also play more of a role than many men are willing to admit. It’s not just the fear of finding out what’s wrong but also a fear of giving up control to their doctors that can keep some men from seeking medical help.
Not all male patients have these misgivings. Michael Coppola, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer, told EverydayHealth he doesn’t mind going to the doctor. “I would rather know if anything is wrong and get it taken care of before it gets worse,” he said. For many patients, being proactive about health is the more logical way to demonstrate strength and control.