Are women better patients than men?

womenpatients

There were a few things that surprised me about an article on New York Magazine’s The Cut, called 10 Men Explain Why They Became Gynecologists. As you probably expect, it’s an interview with 10 male gynecologists, aged 30-70, about why they chose to go into this female-dominated field.  One of the things I didn’t expect to read was an idea evoked by several of the interviewees: women are better patients than men.

It might seem obvious.  For one thing, even if you don’t look into studies and statistics, it’s likely you know or are a man who doesn’t even to go to the doctor – or waits until what started as a minor problem becomes a serious condition.  If you do check out studies, they confirm the trend. For example, according to a 2011 survey cited by Dr. Joel Sherman just 37% of men in the US have seen a doctor in the past year.  About 30% haven’t been to a doctor in over 12 months, and 10% say they can’t remember the last time they saw an MD!  And nearly a quarter of men 40 and older “have never had any preventative tests including prostate exams or blood tests, colonoscopy, diabetes screening and cholesterol measurements.”

The reasons for this, Dr. Sherman writes, haven’t been fully explored.  But he and other experts point out that in most societies, men are encouraged to power through pain and not pay heed to unattractive physical issues, like a rash or a strange beauty mark.  In addition, men are socially conditioned not to share much, if anything, about their healthcare worries, so it’s less likely that a friend or coworker would advise them to see a doctor.  Sherman also points out that embarrassment could be an issue.  For example, a man might think others see him as “weak” if he complains about discomfort. Men might also feel uncomfortable talking to a female healthcare provider.

There are exceptions, but generally, women are socially conditioned to talk about our health and seek help.  As for embarrassment, it can be a factor in some cases, but often, as one gynecologist puts it, “once a woman has pushed out a kid, it’s like, ‘Who gives a crap?!’” (and I can personally confirm this!).  We also tend to be clearer communicators.  Another gynecologist quoted in the article explains, “[Female patients] have no qualms about telling us what’s wrong with them, and therefore we can do what we need to do to get them better.”

A third gynecologist interviewed for the article points out that women’s healthcare is more advanced than men’s in many ways.  Notably, cancers that affect or mainly affect women, like breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancers, can be treated if they’re detected in time, and can even be prevented with regular exams.  Some cancers that primarily affect men can also be successfully treated if they’re found early…but since many men don’t go for regular check-ups or screenings, that becomes more of a problem.

Interesting as issues like this are, though, the most important thing is seeing a doctor regularly.  There are several reasons why women generally live longer than men.  All of the sources you’ll find name this tendency to communicate about our health issues and see doctors more often than men, as one of them.  Whatever gender you are, if you haven’t had a physical or if you haven’t been screened for a condition that runs in your family, please make an appointment with a doctor today. You might be scared to go, but it’s even scarier to find out that you have a life-threatening condition and you’re too late to do anything about it.

by Alysa Salzberg

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