Men are scared of and don't trust GPs

A recent study conducted has drawn light on why men don’t visit their GP’s often enough. It found we are both scared and at the same time too proud: That we don’t trust healthcare providers and don’t know enough about what it is they actually provide.

Men don’t like to go to the doctors; this is news for precisely no one. Indeed it has been an issue for at least as long as I can remember so it’s tempting to not cover another study that tells us what we already know. Yet as it’s a problem which yet to been solved, risking untold numbers lives of boys and men so, perhaps, we should have a look and see if we can’t learn something.

 The study was conducted by NSMC, a company which claims to be about “Changing Behaviours. Improving Lives” which comes across as slightly creepy on their highly corporate site. Their heart seems to be in the right place here however as they are looking to help The London Borough of Haringey overcome the 9 year difference in life expectancy between men living in its rich and poor areas. This report focuses on getting more men into preventative services – dealing with issues like fitness, smoking, and alcohol consumption. In doing so they attempt to understand why men aren’t using them and how to get them though the door which is the part that interests us.

The study interviewed men of various ages and ethnicities from Haringey and combed what was said to see if they could get men to engage with healthcare services. They found that a combination of holes in our knowledge, fear of what could happen, constructs of masculinity and a lack of trust where large problems in getting men to healthcare.

Let’s start with the holes in our knowledge, turns out lots of men don’t really know what GP’s and the NHS can do for them. Some men did not know that the NHS provides preventive healthcare and lifestyle support, such as support to lose weight or give up smoking. Some of these men were surprised that such services were offered by GP’s at all. They saw it as a burden on the NHS, one man worried that it could be the straw that will “break the camel’s back”. It’s easy to see this idea of being a burden being exasperated by recent news stories of the overstretched NHS, with calls for changes to see doctors and A &Es seemly in a perpetual crisis.

It also turns out, as if just to prove my own ignorance, you can get a free NHS health check or “MOT”, which seems quite obvious in hindsight. Unfortunately I’m not alone in ignorance – some men where again surprised to find out that this is a service the NHS provides. Some men seemed interested in getting one if they had an invitation others however expressed fear at what could happen if they went.

Fear was something of a recurring theme and seemed to be a big factor in men not engaging with health services. The main fear what not of what would happen, though this was present, but of what they might find out. One man did not what to go to a health check just in case he found out he had cancer. Some men seemingly held to the principle that ignorance is bliss.

The NHS needs to overcome this fear but it might be more worrying for them is they have to overcome a lack of trust. Some men said that they simply didn’t believe what healthcare professionals told them. One man complained that his doctor was more interested in his computer screen than him. Another complained that appointments where too short to a full idea of what the problem is. Others still wanted more physical tests such as blood tests and x-rays rather than just talking about symptoms as they felt this would lead to a better diagnosis.

Ideas of masculinity also present a problem when trying to get men to engage with healthcare. Men often expressed feeling it was up to them to solve their problems particularly around quitting smoking or losing weight. The sentiment seemed that good man would be able to deal with these issues on his own and not be a burden on his family and friends. This idea of being a burden also applies financially, some men expressed that their families could not afford for them to be ill or take time off to see the doctor.

The men interviewed did offer some solutions. Notably put healthcare in more relaxed spaces were men already congregate such as community centres or shopping centres. GPs where not big a fans as they thought such healthcare locations would be unsustainable as result in more problems when they fail.  

What then did the report recommend then? Some seem a little odd including doing a physical test basically for its own sake (to address that missing trust) and what amounts to little more than “be better”.  It’s difficult to not have more than a little distain for a document running at almost 70 pages that doesn’t really offer any concrete answers. Which shouldn’t cause much of a surprise; these aren’t exactly issues that are easy to get to grips: fear and trust seem especially difficult to deal with. The report does make some sensible suggestions; a focus on transparency and availability could have great results.

It’s hardly a ground breaking piece of research then. It could, without a shadow of a doubt save lives if attention is paid to what it says. Getting men into GPs and healthcare more generally is important, providing us with information, giving us a system we can trust and helping us through our fear. It’s not easy to do and will need to part of every action people working with men take. It is a daunting but worthwhile task.