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I didn’t want to spoil the family holiday – and other reasons why men don’t visit the Doctor

Harry was with his family catching a few waves in the surf when he felt a heavy aching in both arms. The same pain he had a day or so beforehand after yard work at home. And a few days before that during his regular gym workout.

family fishing

Assuming he was “bulletproof” and unwilling to interrupt the family get-away, he ignored the pain and rested until it settled. A mate suggested he get checked by his General Practitioner who promptly sent Harry to emergency where an angiogram showed three blocked coronary arteries that caused his heart attack.

Men have an interesting relationship with their doctors

They respect their knowledge and expertise yet are reluctant to expose themselves to it. The data on men’s average life span, avoidable deaths and their greater chance of arriving at an emergency department than a GP clinic suggests this relationship is not serving men well.

Research into why medicine appears to fail men has come up with a range of possible reasons, including a reluctance for men to reveal ignorance or vulnerability (unmanly), inefficiencies in medical practices (time wasting), logistics (busy at work), fear of tests or interventions (discomfort) or an aversion to being told to improve their diet/weight/smoking/exercise or to cease activities that they enjoy.

In my opinion, the reverse is true – men are failing their doctors.

Australian men visit their doctor more than previous generations

But they don’t allow the doctor to do their best work. Many believe a doctor has the power to read minds and other body signals to diagnose and treat men’s health issues, avoiding him having to provide information, describe symptoms and admit any behavioural contribution to illness.

When men visit their doctor the following scenarios are more likely true than for women, they will

  • Delay the consultation until there is no alternative and their illness or injury is impacting on work or play
  • Seek help only for their most critical current problem, expecting a ‘cure’ to be delivered promptly to allow them to get back to work/play
  • Be satisfied with (and probably request) a ‘Short Consultation’
  • Expect to park immediately outside the clinic
  • Endure treatment until the symptoms improve, often without completing the full treatment regime
  • Not seek preventative care or advice

These observations are based on research and my clinical career treating men. They are generalisations based on a gender stereotype and some men don’t fit this model. These are known as ‘blokes who look after themselves’ or ‘healthy men’.

The typical short consult for a single, urgent problem obliges the GP to comply with the man’s short-term, results focused expectations allowing no time and space to develop a longer-term health maintenance relationship with male patients.

Men will get better value and results from their doctor using a project management mind-set towards their own health. 

The first part is to provide all the information needed in a timely manner to the practitioner. Here are some tips to maxamise GP value for men’s health

  • Know your family medical history, especially your father’s. There are genetic predisposing risk factors for conditions such as prostate cancer, coronary disease, dementia and depression. Share this history with your GP.
  • Find a GP who is a good fit for you: convenient, accessible, generous with time and skills. One interested in you as a person not just a patient. Give them the time to let this happen.
  • See your doctor when you are well. Let your GP see what a healthy you looks like inside and out. Baseline measures of weight, height, BP, blood tests, vision and more will be useful when later assessing changes. Share your fears and goals regarding a healthy life.
  • Monitor your risk factors with regular visits to check for skin cancers, prostate changes, blood pressure, blood markers, sleep habits and stress indicators as determined by your risk profile.
  • Turn up. Ask questions. Listen.
  • Prepare for GP visits with a self-check to ensure you raise all concerns (minor and urgent). Take control and seek advice for ongoing health, not just remedies.
  • Follow the advice given. Act early on referrals for tests or treatment, persist with lifestyle changes for several months even if they are difficult or uncomfortable. Give the advice a chance to work.

A long-term relationship with your GP based on health rather than illness is a great investment in your quality and quantity of life.

Harry’s self-assessment that he was bulletproof was based on his memory of being 20 years old and playing professional football. The triple bypass surgery to repair his damaged heart is a reminder that none of us is immune to the privilege of growing older and the changes that come with it.

By A/Prof Craig Allingham

Olympic & Men’s Health Physiotherapist

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