Why Men Avoid Physical Exams and How They Can Be Motivated


June is Men’s Health Month, but why is there even a need for such an occasion? To keep up with Women’s Health Month? No, according to the Men’s Health Network,  the purpose is to heighten the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment of disease among men and boys.

What’s so different about the health of men? Unlike women, sadly many men take much better care of maintaining their vehicle than they do their physical body.

Unlike women, who generally begin yearly checkups during puberty, there’s no such clear developmental marker for men. Unless a guy developed a chronic condition as a child, such as asthma, he’s probably not going to start having routine physical examinations. Many wait until they’re facing a health crisis or someone pushes them to do so. Worse yet, some actively avoid visits to a physician even when they don’t feel right, often until it’s too late.

Why do men put off exams?

The first reason is mentioned above—lack of a clear message that regular checkups are important. Unless a father “models the behavior” by demonstrating that this is part of a man’s normal routine, the message is often neither sent nor received.

Another reason that men neglect health maintenance is often because of the way men perceive society’s expections of them. Women are taught to seek help, but men are socialized to be strong and independent, a blessing and a curse that plagues us in many life arenas. A visit to a physician’s office typically feels to a man like help-seeking, which translates psychologically to a feeling of “weakness” or inferiority.

Of course, this is nonsense from a logical perspective: no one is self-sufficient. We employ physicians no differently from the way we hire any other expert consultant, whether auto mechanics or accountants. But something about the exam experience seems to provoke a “one-down” feeling among many individuals of both sexes.

Finally, many men experience anxiety about various medical procedures, from having blood drawn to the dreaded digital rectal prostate exam, which some view frankly as an unwanted sexual threat.

What is needed is a change in culture and education

We need both direct information and in the form of fathers showing their sons that routine physical exams are as important as routine auto maintenance like an oil change.

The federal government is trying to get out the message to men and their loved ones. A new ad campaign uses humor and shock. For example, in one ad, a sales clerk tells a man to not bother taking out a two-year warranty on his new electronics gadget. The man’s going to die before then because he missed out an important dection test.

How you can help men

If you know a man—husband, father, or brother—who has not made regular check-ups a habit, talk to him about it. Use the auto analogy above, if it helps, or another one that would work for him.

Let him know you care, that you’d like to keep him around a long time. Tug at his heartstrings: Point out all the important family events that you know he’d like to be part of, like watching children and grandchildren grow, graduate, and marry.

Remind him that he’s in charge of the examination process, not the physician, who is an expert consultant. Point out that it’s easier to prevent problems or reduce their impact with early detection. And speaking of prevention, the top health threats are often preventable by the usual behavioral strategies: exercise, nutrition and stress management.

Photo by j. reed (via flickr).

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2 Responses to “Why Men Avoid Physical Exams and How They Can Be Motivated”

  1. Scott W. George   July 27, 2010 at 7:17 am

    I teach the male physical exam to medical and nursing students around the U.S. I point out to my students, that one of the siginificant factors affecting the failure of men to adequately utilize the health care system, is the health care system itself. The system does not encourage men to participate in regular “well-male” exams, with nearly the same vigor that they encourage women to participate in annual “well-woman” exams. There are a number of reasons for this. First, many male and female clinicians are uncomfortable conducting a testicular or prostate exam because of inadequate training they’ve received while in medical or nursing school. This is compounded by the fact that most of our graduating doctors and nurses are anxious about the comprehensive male exam because they have never experienced the exam conducted on themselves. The male exam is a mystery to most. That includes both female AND male clinicians. At least women’s health benefits from the fact that most female clinicians graduating from our medical and nursing schools can say that they have personally experienced a pelvic and breast exam. Until doctors and nurses become comfortable with examining men, they will not sufficiently promote regular exams for men, and men will continue to live shorter lives than American women.