Going to the doctor – like a man!

Welcome to our new blog!  Each month, we will use this space to discuss a new topic around men’s health, offering insight, information and suggestions on steps every man can take to improve their health and wellbeing.

For our first blog, we’ve decided to tackle a question that’s fundamental to everything else we talk about at the Blue Ribbon Foundation: why don’t men visit the doctor?

The disparity between men and women’s life expectancy is stark.  While the difference is narrowing, on average women live seven years longer than men.  Men are more likely than women to develop some serious health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and cancer.  Alongside some possible biological reasons, men’s typical lifestyles also contribute to the problem.  Men are more likely to drink too much alcohol, smoke more, exercise less, and have poorer diets than women overall.  So far, so depressing.  But men can take action to live more healthily, and we here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation push healthy living in all that we do (see Male Health Information).

But other than eating well and exercising regularly, one simple thing men can do to safeguard their health is to regularly visit the doctor.  But men often:

  • don’t go when they feel unwell
  • are not aware of conditions that they should be checked for, particularly as they get older.

For example, men’s chances of developing prostate cancer increase with age, particularly after 50.  However, this is a condition that often will not have any symptoms until it has already spread.  While looking up symptoms and treatments online may help in some circumstances, this is no substitute for trained medical advice.  And yet many men still do not visit the doctor until things are too late.

There are many reasons (and sometimes excuses!) given for this situation.  Chiefly, for many men in the UK there is still a persistent culture of masculinity that portrays any illness or disability as weakness.  This pressure can be overt or subtle.  For some men, it is about wanting to be strong, a breadwinner, or fulfil other stereotypical ‘masculine’ roles, which is then reinforced by cultural norms.  In fairness, this situation is not just about men’s attitudes.  Both men and women can also help to combat these stereotypes by quashing common jokes about men’s illness, for example that men suffer from made-up ‘man flu’.  These reoccurring cultural themes can play into many men’s sense that being ill is not something a man can, or should be.  This situation is particularly cruel when you consider that men are less likely than women to be treated for mental health problems such as depression, and yet men’s suicide rate is 3½ times that of women in the UK.  Men are not getting the help they need when they need it.

In other cases, men may not go to the doctor simply due to shyness, and a discomfort with opening themselves up (both emotionally and sometimes physically) to a stranger – even a friendly stranger with a medical degree and a welcoming office.  There’s nothing wrong with these things in general.  But when a health problem could shorten your life, there is nothing brave in not taking action to sort it!

The future looks more encouraging.  The macho culture that can prevent men from visiting the doctor seems to be dissipating, with more public discussion of men’s health issues, and the growth of men’s health magazines and online fora for discussion.  However, as men we all need to take responsibility for our health, and that includes going to the doctor.  If you are concerned about your health, or simply want to check everything is ok, there are a couple of practical steps you can take:

  1. No excuses, book an appointment: it sounds simple, but the amount of times we put off going to see the doctor because ‘we don’t have time’ is remarkable.  If you have time to make excuses, you have time to make a one minute call to your local surgery, or even book online if the GP offers that service.  Don’t let your work or other responsibilities stop you from doing what is right for your health.
  2. Talk about it: speak to a friend, your partner or family about what is bothering you.  Talk through what you will say to the doctor, and practice being honest about what you are feeling.  This will help you get what you need out of the appointment, and enable you to leave with clear next steps.
  3. Keep positive and commit to taking action: going to the doctor is a mark of you taking control of your health, so embrace that you are making a good decision.  Likewise, if you go to the doctor and do not get the news you hoped for, don’t waste the opportunity – take positive action on the treatments or options presented.
  4. Remember that a illness or disability does not define you: even if you are dealing with a long-term condition, that is not all, or even most, of who you are, and what you can offer to the people in your life.
  5. Keep healthy: if you look after your health in other ways, by eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise, the news from your doctor is far more likely to be good.  Plus, you’ll get to enjoy the feeling of being smug that you’re so in shape and in control of your health…

Going to the doctor is an key part of looking after your health, and living a healthy lifestyle.  Guys, it’s time to confound the stereotypes, and take charge of your health – go see your doctor, like a man.