Why men avoid going to the doctor
Men seek out medical help a lot less than women, which can have a huge impact on their health and longevity. Here's why it's important we start the conversation to reduce stigma around male health.
In Australia, we seem to expect our blokes to be tough, strong and self-sufficient. Men can learn from an early age that talking about worries, fears and problems can put their status and level of respect at risk. This cultural stigma is so strong that even when men disagree with outdated stereotypes of masculinity, they still feel pressure to conform to them.
So it’s probably no surprise to learn men are prone to perceiving visits to the doctor or admitting something is wrong health-wise as a sign of weakness. On average, Aussie men avoid going to the doctor a lot more than women – a behaviour linked to poorer health overall across their lifespan.
Fewer visits to the doctor
The stats don’t lie. Male patients accounted for 43% of visits to GPs in 2015–16 compared with 57% for women. In 2018–19, men received an average of 14 Medicare services. By comparison, women claimed 19.5 services.
Indeed, numerous studies have found men have lower rates of medical help-seeking behaviour compared with women. This applies across a diverse range of areas including physical health, mental health and alcohol and substance use.
“What masculinity tends to refer to and mean in the Australian context, at least from a traditional standpoint, is norms around self-reliance, independence and being a protector and provider, and none of these interact very nicely with being a help-seeker,” says Dr Zac Seidler, a clinical psychologist at Movember. Movember runs a moustache-growing fundraising event each November to raise awareness of men’s health issues like prostate cancer, testicular cancer and suicide prevention.
“There's a large amount of stigma and a sense of weakness and vulnerability that comes with help-seeking rather than just getting on with it,” he says.
And even though telehealth has improved access to medical care during the pandemic, lockdown restrictions and fear of the virus have compounded the problem for many men, says Dr Seidler.
When men avoid the doctor
One possible explanation is men are less proactive about their health and tend to avoid the doctor. “There is a direct link between not seeing your doctor and your life expectancy being much earlier in men in Australia,” says Dr Seidler.
Dr Billy Stoupas from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says one of the best examples of this is ignoring potential signs of heart disease – the leading cause of death for men in Australia.
“Ignoring niggling chest pain that comes on and off every now and then, and just thinking that it's nothing to worry about, can have negative outcomes because it can be a sign of heart disease, which can be managed to prevent a heart attack from occurring,” he says.
And it’s not just about seeing a doctor when something’s wrong. Skipping regular check-ups and screenings for conditions like bowel cancer, diabetes and skin cancer can interfere with preventive health.
This means men “might miss the signs and symptoms of diseases that may be able to be prevented or managed at an earlier stage”, says Dr Stoupas.
Reducing the stigma around male health
According to experts, the most effective way to reduce the stigma around men’s health is: men talking to other men about their health.
“We need to have real experiences where men are speaking to other men – their mates or their family members – about the doctor they saw or the psychologist they saw, and how it went and what happened,” says Dr Seidler.
“It’s about open communication rather than making help-seeking a really solitary and silent, frightening experience. Men are much better at communicating about their health, emotions and wellbeing than we allow them and give them credit for.”
Even better, there are flow-on benefits to younger generations who watch and learn how the men in their lives manage health.
”When fathers and grandfathers talk about what’s happening and what type of treatment they’ve had, for example, they’re modelling those behaviours to their sons and grandsons,” says Dr Seidler. “Those moments are really good learning exercises for everyone in the family to see that their dad or grandad is human.”
Getting men to the doctor
Women can encourage the men in their lives to start the conversation by helping them keep up with medical appointments, says Dr Stoupas.
“Women are often a big part of getting the guy into the room with the doctor,” he says. “Many men are there because their significant other made the appointment and brought them in – but they don't need to stay in there for the whole time.”
For many men, telehealth is a less confrontational way to access healthcare than face-to-face appointments. HCF’s partnership with GP2U, Australia’s first dedicated online medical practice, offers eligible members free telehealth consultations with a GP. Call us on 13 13 14 to find out more.
First published November 2020.
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