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Men generally don't like going to the doctor, especially to male doctors. But why?

About 25 years ago, when my niece was a toddler, she asked me how to do a cartwheel. I was in my late thirties, but I had once done cartwheels, so we went out in the front yard and I showed her my best. Somewhere in my second handstand I heard an unmistakable pop, pop, pop up and down my spine and I knew I needed to land in an upright position or I'd never be able to get back into the house. My niece said "Your back sounds funny" and then proceeded to do a half dozen cartwheels of her own, entirely without injury. I hobbled back into the house, waited until her parents came to pick her up, and then poured myself into my bed.

I had some vacation time, so I spent the next week trying to recuperate. I'm not someone who likes to take pain medication at all, but I did break down and take an Aspirin. I had health insurance, but I wasn't really inclined to go to the doctor. When I still had back pain three weeks later, however, I made an appointment to see my primary care provider. I remember saying something to the effect of friends say I really need to see you but I'm fine. Fortunately for me, my doctor, who was also a guy, didn't take me at my word, and an X-ray showed I really wasn't fine. I eventually recovered, but my somersaulting days are long over.

Why was I so hesitant to go to the doctor? Why are most American men reticent to see their doctors, especially if their doctors are other men? In America, a need to "grin and bear" it is a frequent part of masculine identity.

Not Seeing the Doctor Is a Matter of Self-Worth for Most American Men

Dr. Mary Himmelstein, when she was a doctoral student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, became intrigued with the question of why American men die, on average, five years earlier than American women. When she had a personal experience with a family member who waited too long to see a doctor, she decided to uncover the reasons men don't get preventive health care and timely treatment of obvious symptoms.

In one study, Dr. Himmelstein, gather two groups of people, one of them college students, and the other not. She gave the volunteers a psychological inventory called Contingencies of Self-Worth (CSW), which measures the important of courage and self-reliance, which in America are considered "manly" behavior. Then she asked the participants (both men and women) how often they saw their doctors and whether they delayed treatment. Both men and women who valued masculine behavior were slower to see a doctor about their health complaints.

Men Are More Likely to Describe Symptoms to Female Doctors

In a second study, Dr. Himmelstein asked the participants in the first two groups to visit either male or female medical students to describe their personal health. She found that the higher the masculinity score on the CSW, the fewer symptoms the mock patient disclosed to the doctor, although men revealed more about themselves to women than to other men.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Himmelstein MS, Sanchez DT. Masculinity impediments: Internalized masculinity contributes to healthcare avoidance in men and women. J Health Psychol. 2014 Oct 7. pii: 1359105314551623. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 25293967.
  • Himmelstein MS, Sanchez DT. Masculinity in the doctor's office: Masculinity, gendered doctor preference and doctor-patient communication. Prev Med. 2016 Mar. 84:34-40. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.12.008. Epub 2015 Dec 24. PMID: 26724519.
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