What can healthcare providers do to ensure that we are meeting the unique challenges men are facing today?
According to the CDC, a man’s life expectancy is 5.8 years shorter than a woman’s – 73.5 years compared to 79.3. Men are more likely to die of cancer and diabetes, and they are more than twice as likely as women to die of drug overdoses. Further, men die from suicide at nearly four times the rate of women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
We may be experiencing an epidemic of male isolation. In 2021, 15% of men reported that they had no close friends, compared to just 3% in 1990. Plus, only 22% of men reported reaching out to their friends during tough times, down from 45% 30 years ago. This lack of social connection doesn’t just impact men’s mental health, but it has serious physical consequences as well. In fact, a recent study found that people who experience social isolation have a 32% higher risk of dying early from any cause.
Factors that influence men’s health
Overall health is influenced by a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental. Many of these are outside of an individual’s control, such as genetics and hormones. Men’s XY chromosomes and higher levels of androgens make them more susceptible to certain diseases. For instance, heart disease typically begins 10 years earlier in men than it does in women.
However, lifestyle also plays a significant role. Men tend to take more risks than women and are overrepresented in more dangerous jobs. They are also more likely to smoke, drink to excess and abuse illegal drugs. Moreover, men often lack strong interpersonal relationships and support networks. These social and behavioral factors add up over time, leading to poorer health outcomes and shorter lifespans for men.
Men aren’t using healthcare services
Among those poor lifestyle factors: men are far less likely to visit healthcare providers. In a survey by the Cleveland Clinic, 65% of men reported that they avoid going to the doctor as long as possible. The CDC also found that men visit their physicians less frequently than women – 224 visits per 100 men in one year compared to 308 visits per 100 women. Skipping routine screenings means men are missing the opportunity to diagnose medical conditions before they become more serious.
Men are also less likely to utilize mental health services. In fact, 40% of men have never spoken to anyone about their mental health. This reluctance to pursue treatment is likely due to social expectations around masculinity – where self-reliance is valued and getting help is seen as a sign of weakness. Further, men cope with mental health challenges differently than women, tending to minimize symptoms and self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
How healthcare providers can support men’s health
So, what can healthcare providers do to encourage men to receive the appropriate care? To start, it’s important for physicians to meet men where they are. Men are less likely to regularly visit a primary care provider, so their first point of entry for medical care may be the emergency room or urgent care center. Emergency physicians often don’t have the chance to address larger issues, but they can encourage men to visit their PCP for follow-ups. Further, 61% of men report they would be more likely to go to their annual checkup if it was more convenient. Physicians can try offering more flexible hours or virtual visits.
Physicians who take the time to communicate with their patients can be an important source of information and support for men who may otherwise avoid talking about their health. An empathetic, direct conversation can help spur men into adopting healthier behaviors or even visiting their doctor more regularly.
Providers screening for mental health issues should also consider how certain conditions may present differently in men and women. Depression often goes undiagnosed in men, in part because they are more likely to report symptoms like irritability, anger, substance abuse or fatigue, which are less-frequently discussed signs of the disorder.
Attitudes about masculinity are changing, and we’re likely to see younger men take better advantage of healthcare services. This is due in part to initiatives like the Movember Foundation, a charity that raises funds for men’s health research and provides resources on mental health, prostate cancer and testicular cancer.
By simply being aware of the statistics showing men may require a little extra coaxing, providers can step in by providing extra incentives for men to visit the doctor. Maybe they offer a discount for partner appointments or maybe they schedule marketing or informational campaigns about recommended screenings where men tend to gather, such as sporting events, golf tournaments or hunting clubs.
As physicians, we have a responsibility to help men understand their health better and eliminate stigmas around getting help. You can’t make them go but you can make it easier.
Nancy K. Klotz, MD, MBA, FACP, is chief medical officer at Brighton Health Plan Solutions, where she is responsible for clinical strategy across the company’s various business segments.