Newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran recently broached the subject of men’s eternal reluctance to visit the doctor on Twitter and was astounded by the thousands of responses she received.
Man after man replied to her tweets, telling her how, when and why they had put off going to the doctors whenever they were worried about a particular ailment. For some it was the fear of bad news that made them stay away.
Others said they just hoped the problem would go away. Most just didn’t want to bother the doctor.
But it has always been thus, as Dr Gary Howsam, Vice Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, explains.
“There may be many reasons that men aren’t always as comfortable seeking medical care when they need it,” he says.
“Some might include societal stigma around men discussing health concerns, particularly concerns around mental health, as well as more reluctance to have discussions about more emotional issues, or those they might find embarrassing."
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In 2019, research by Pulse, the GPs' journal, found that eight in 10 men would rather suffer in silence with their illness or injury, rather than seek medical assistance.
Meanwhile, 35% of the 2,000 men interviewed on behalf of private medical insurer BUPA, admitted that they would only visit their doctor if the problem persisted for three weeks or more while 39% said they would only go when their pain reached the point when it was ‘unbearable’.
Last year, meanwhile, a survey for the Cleveland Clinic in the US found that 65% of men avoided going to the doctor for as long as possible and when they did finally attend they often withheld key information, largely because of embarrassment or fear of a negative diagnosis.
“It is essential that more is done to identify and address these factors and encourage men to access the healthcare that they need when they need it,’ adds Dr Howsam.
“GPs are highly trained to have open, sensitive and confidential conversations with their patients, and make patients feel as comfortable as possible whilst having them.”
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Whatever their reason, men will often resist getting help, usually until a friend, partner or loved one intervenes and all but orders them to go. That was the case of the former BBC Breakfast presenter, Bill Turnbull.
In 2017, having ignored months of aches, pains and bladder problems, he finally took his son’s advice and booked an appointment with his doctor. When his test results came back. he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“Typical man, I didn’t want to hang around at the surgery,” he said at the time. “I didn’t want to waste the GP’s time. Would it have made a difference if I had? I don’t know.”
It was a similar story with politician Andrew Lansley. The former Conservative health secretary was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer in 2018, despite his attempts to ignore the pain that had been spreading across his back and it was his wife that persuaded him to finally get help.
Ironically, Lansley had also launched a screening programme for the disease during his time in government.
Matt Rudd is the author of Man Down: Why Men Are Unhappy and What We Can Do About It. He believes that while men are supposed to have moved beyond the Victorian notion of ‘boys don’t cry’, it’s still pervasive, despite numerous campaigns to get men to open up and talk.
“It's still ingrained in education and the way we raise boys,” he says. “And even if we do manage to parent in a way that somehow magically makes boys more emotionally intelligent and open, this can still get snuffed out so easily through peer pressure.
“So by the time we get to the point we need to see the doctor, too many men have reverted to the strong, silent, I-don't-want-to-be-a-bother stereotype.”
A man's reluctance to visit their GP can also be put down to the very limited amount of interaction they have with the health service, especially when compared to the experience of women. In other words, it’s all a bit alien.
“Men don't have to go to our GP to discuss menstrual health or birth control and by the first time we're invited to be screened for something, we're already in our 40s/50s,” says Rudd.
“In that respect, seeing a doctor is not a normal thing to do – it's a last resort. If young men were invited to have a general check-up every three or four years, that would change. And the cost of all that would be offset easily by the savings that come with early intervention.”
As men struggle with social expectation and stereotypical ideas about manliness, inevitably they’re often emotionally ill-prepared as they navigate their way through life, preferring to tackle things on their own rather than seek help, be that medical or otherwise.
“Men can be so focused on keeping all the plates spinning that the idea of changing anything is terrifying,” adds Rudd. “This is why men don't talk to each other and it's also why we don't seek help when we need it. Must. Keep. Going.
“The result is that, if we're lucky, we rock up in retirement wondering where all that time went or, if we're unlucky, we have a full-on life crisis or a heart attack that we could have avoided if we'd just gone to see the doctor.”