Compared to women, men avoid going to the doctor, skip more recommended screenings and tend to practice riskier behavior. They tend to live more years of their lives with bad health than their female counterparts and also have about a five-year shorter life expectancy than women.
While there aren’t many people who excitedly look forward to a doctor’s visit, especially since you’ve far outgrown receiving cartoon bandages and maybe a free lollipop for your troubles, most of us know heading in for a checkup every once in a while is necessary. But a recent study reveals the great lengths many men claim they’ll go to avoid a trip to the doctor, with 72% of men stating they rather do household chores, such as cleaning the bathroom, than getting a checkup. In fact, 65% of the men surveyed said they tend to wait as long as possible to see a doctor, even if they have prolonged symptoms or an injury.
Those statistics don’t come as too much of a shock to Robert Smitherman, M.D., a primary care physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington and at Texas Health Family Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice; although, he notes the disparity between genders may be closer than studies show.
“Honestly, I see it in both genders, but I will say, male patients tend to be a bit more closed off than women,” he says. “I just have to approach the visit a little differently sometimes with men to get the answers I need or to figure out really what’s going on.”
We know that men tend to access care less, but why? According to the study, and Smitherman, it’s often not a straightforward answer.
“A lot of people will avoid the doctor for various reasons,” Smitherman says. “I hear a lot of patients tell me they’ve had unfavorable experiences in the past with other doctors, so they tend to shy away from heading in unless absolutely necessary.”
According to the survey, one-quarter of men have felt judged by their doctor before.
“I’ve seen patients who have not had doctors that were personable, or they’ve been in situations in which they felt like they could not trust their physician, or they were talked down to in the past,” Smitherman explains.
This hesitation can lead to withholding information even when they do head in to see someone. Among those who confessed to not being completely honest with their doctor in the past, the top reasons why include:
- They were embarrassed (46%)
- They felt uncomfortable (40%)
- They didn’t want to be judged (39%)
“In my world, I like to see people pretty regularly so that I, at the very least, have a rapport with them so they’re more apt to go ‘oh, I know Dr. Smitherman, he’s not going to judge me or belittle me; I can trust him, and he knows what he’s talking about,’” Smitherman adds.
When asked about a range of health issues, 46% of men are most uncomfortable talking to their doctors about sex-related concerns, such as skin irritations, erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted infections, and/or their sexual history. In fact, twice as many men surveyed noted this as their primary reason for lack of comfortability than the next runner up, which was talking about their weight or diet (26%).
The remaining topics include:
- Workout frequency – 14%
- Alcohol consumption – 12%
- Drugs (illegal and un-prescribed) – 10%
- Smoking habits – 9%
- Adherence to medication prescribed – 9%
- Blood in urine – 7%
Smitherman says he knows some of the topics that are discussed can be uncomfortable to talk about, even with your health care provider, but they’re necessary in order to get a clear picture of what’s going on and your overall health.
“As a primary care provider, I’m going to ask you a series of questions over multiple touchpoints to get an overall understanding of your health and some of those questions may be uncomfortable to answer,” he explains. “You’re completely validated to not answer, I won’t take offense to it, but I hope you know I’m not asking to be presumptuous or to offend you. Oftentimes, especially with men, if I bring it up first and give them a safe space to talk about it, they’re more likely to feel free to discuss uncomfortable topics or issues they’re dealing with that they’re embarrassed about.
“I know this saying has been said so many times, but really, we’ve heard it all and seen it all, so it’s pretty hard to faze us,” he continues. “We’re not here to judge you, we just want to help you. Don’t ever feel like you’re wasting my time by asking me about something, or that something is too little or silly.”
Another major concern men cited in the survey was not wanting to know they have a health problem, even if they suspect it. More than a third of men who admit they haven’t been completely honest with their doctor in the past withheld information because they knew something was wrong but weren’t ready to face the diagnosis and/or would rather not know if they have any health issues. Also, about 38% of men who were not completely honest with their doctor held back because they thought the problem might resolve itself.
Furthermore, one-third of men who haven’t been honest with their doctor held back because they didn't want to hear that they needed to change their diet or lifestyle, such as exercising more, cleaning up their diet, quitting smoking, etc.
“If you’re not ready to face something, coming to see me isn’t going to make a difference in your treatment plan most likely because I can’t and won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do,” Smitherman says. “But if you’re avoiding a visit with us because you’re fearing the worst, we always tell people there is nothing wrong with coming in just to be reassured. Most of the time after we do the blood work or an exam, the issue ends up not being nefarious, but the more you put something off, the greater chance you have at it turning into something serious.”
While the survey focuses on a lot of negatives, more than 80% of men said despite their hesitation to seek care, their personal and family responsibilities drive them to adopt healthier behaviors, with many citing they try to stay healthy to live longer for friends and family who rely on them. Furthermore, 43% of men stated they’d be most motivated to head in for a checkup if their health started interfering with work or became a burden on their family and friends (39%).
However, only 50% of men engage in preventative care, such as an annual exam.
“I know it’s easy to push off care when you feel like nothing is wrong, but we want you to come in even if you’re not having any outstanding issues that way we can get out ahead of something before it becomes a bigger deal versus trying to do some damage control once you’re already experiencing issues,” Smitherman says. “It’s a bit like taking your car in for an oil change. They’re going to change your oil, sure, but they’re also going to do a multi-point inspection and check your tire pressure and your coolant levels and other basic things that also contribute to the health of your vehicle and try to catch them before they become a bigger issue.”
Of the men who aren’t already seeing their doctor for annual check-ups, 61% would be more likely to do so if seeing the doctor was more convenient. This can mean offering virtual visits, more flexible appointment times, having someone else make the appointment for them and/or getting screened at events they’re already participating in.
“One of the greatest things that’s happened with the pandemic is that we’ve all gotten an advanced degree in some form of telemedicine. I don’t know many doctors now that don’t offer that as a service for their patients,” Smitherman says. “Additionally, I start seeing patients at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. and I try to hold those appointment times for people who can’t come see me any other time because of work. Let the office know what you’ve got going on, and they’ll be willing to work with you to get you in.”
As for getting men to take action and head in to see their health care providers more often, Smitherman says it ultimately comes down to finding a doctor you can trust, which is easier said than done.
“I love having a relationship with my patients so that they know they can trust me. When you have a trusting relationship with your provider, you’re more likely to come in and seek care, whether you’re having an issue or you’re just coming in for your annual exam,” Smitherman adds. “Look, I know how tough it can be finding a doctor you feel like you can really trust. Talk to your friends and colleagues; get recommendations from them about who they see. It’s not a guarantee you’re going to hit it off with them, but it’s a good first step. Then, be honest with them once you do go see them.”