In my practice I rarely see men whose visit to the clinic is initiated solely by them. They are much more often there at the suggestion (and indeed sometimes coercion) of some woman of influence in their lives. Yes we wives, partners, sisters, and co-workers have influence in some areas.
I remember one particular gentleman who came to see me only because his wife gave him an ultimatum. He had been suffering severe back pain for years and she grew tired of him being grumpy and unwilling to do anything. Once his pain was relieved I saw a whole different person emerge. He had a wonderful sense of humour, a positive outook, and an infectious smile. I like to think I helped uncover the man she married. If you would like to read more about his story, click here.
The question is, what makes men less likely to initiate a health care encounter? The issue is multi-factorial, but one consideration that I often hear from my male clients is that in today’s society there are still cultural tendencies supporting the idea that men have to be “tough”. This is sometimes referred to as the Superman Syndrome. Men feel pressure to minimize pain and “be a man”. When men get injured playing sports for example, they are encouraged by their buddies to “man up” and get on with the game. This can lead to everything from chronic pain to even premature death.
If He Would Just…..(Insert Eye Roll Here)
If men are reluctant to see a doctor when they have symptoms suggestive of serious illness, how then do we convince them to seek help for nagging low back pain or a sore knee? The answer is not simple, but a good starting point is to stop seeing health care avoidance as men just behaving badly, or (let’s face it ladies, we’ve all thought it) just being plain difficult. This line of thinking is not going to be very productive for anyone.
When men seek help for an illness or injury, there is often fear that they will be perceived as vulnerable or weak. This is part of why they will often put things off until they just can’t anymore. Unfortunately by this point the problem can be quite significant and much harder to treat. I have seen men in my practice who have almost seemed embarrassed to be “bothering me for such a minor issue” when they have quite complex long standing problems that have led to significant pain and dysfunction.
So How Can I Help You Sir?
Studies have shown that there are some factors we can control that would have a positive influence on men seeking health care. One is waiting time. A study by the American Journal of Public Health reported that 30% of men will not return to see a health care practitioner if they have had to wait more than 30 minutes at a previous visit. When men are feeling pressured to get back to work (perhaps booking an appointment at lunch time so as not to have to tell anyone where they have gone) wait times are enough to put them right off.
Another is taking advantage of peer pressure in a positive way. I have found that if you can get one man in the door and help him, then it is likely his friends will follow. If men who play sports tell their teammates about a positive health care experience, particularly if it has improved their game play, the others will show more interest.
Introducing things such as physiotherapy or massage therapy on the spot at sporting events has been shown to have positive effects on the group as a whole. I have generally found that once you get in that initial session, they will come back if you can have a positive influence on how they are feeling right away.
By far, the most influential factor I have seen in men who are active in sport is their motivation to keep playing. By avoiding treatment for the lesser injuries, we set ourselves up for the BIG one that will stop us in our tracks. For more on how this works see this blog post. Making men aware of this risk and the possible consequence of having to sit out for some time helps with the issue of health care avoidance. I have male clients who, having treated them once, now return more preventatively when the pain is minor and thus avoid more serious injury.
Finding the Right Practitioner
The bottom line is if we want to help the men in our lives to seek health care when they need it, we need to consider all of these factors. If there are health care practitioners at a sporting event, try to convince him to check it out. If one of his teammates has had a positive experience with treatment of an injury, encourage him to share it.
When looking for a practitioner, find someone who will get him in and out of the clinic on time. It may seem like a small thing but it’s really not. Also, one may assume that men are more comfortable with a male health care professional. However, men are often more likely to downplay their symptoms to a male practitioner for the need of maintaining a strong front when interacting with another man, so don’t assume here. Just make sure he finds someone with whom he feels comfortable and this will result in better health outcomes all around.