The model of how we access healthcare has changed a great deal in the last several decades, and one of the most significant shifts has been from a model of physicians directing their patients’ care. They still do that of course, but now the care relationships between patients and their physicians is more of a partnership.
More recently, patients are now asking questions of their doctors about their health and are practicing healthy lifestyle habits like eating well, exercising, and avoiding things we know are harmful, such as tobacco and an unhealthy diet. A patient’s annual wellness exam is the ideal opportunity to talk about concerns, conditions, and questions that they might have with their primary care physician.
Since Men’s Health Month is June, it is important to look at what screenings and healthcare priorities should be top of mind for men, from adolescence on. Men are also traditionally less likely to seek medical treatment than women — including routine care. Research has shown that the reasons for this are complex, and involve a combination of factors.
The respected Cleveland Clinic created the MENtion It campaign, aimed at encouraging men to share health concerns and questions with their doctors. One component of the initiative is a survey, and their most recently conducted one found that 65% of respondents said that they avoid going to the doctor as long as possible, and 37% admitted to withholding information from their doctors.
These issues obviously set the stage for men to get diagnosed with conditions — some serious — later than they could have been if they were up front with their doctors initially.
Some things that have been linked to this avoidance of care in men are the way they are socialized. Men are taught that they need to be strong, that vulnerability is not valued, and that they should “push through” discomfort and deal with things on their own. When it comes to healthcare, however, we should urge men to think differently.
Throughout a man’s lifespan, certain health screenings and vaccinations are important to keep on top of for their health. When a boy is a preteen, around 11 or 12, they should get their HPV vaccine, which is a two-dose immunization that offers protection from strains of the human papillomavirus. This offers protection against cervical cancer in women and mouth and throat cancers in both men and women.
Screenings for colon cancer and prostate cancer should start when men enter middle age, and the exact age they should begin screening for these cancers depends on their risk factors like age, race, and family history. A conversation with one’s primary care provider helps to determine when a man should get their first colonoscopy and PSA test, which measures how much of a protein called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) that the prostate produces is in the blood.
Men should also discuss being checked for skin cancer with their doctors, as well as lung cancer if they have a history of smoking. A screening called a low-dose CT scan is an innovation that is available now that can detect lung cancer earlier, and before this test was offered, lung cancer was usually discovered at a later stage. This screening allows for better prognoses, since cancers are found earlier.
Men’s physical health is not the only thing that should be monitored. Men should also discuss their mental health as well. Now that we are fortunate to be entering a more normal phase since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take stock of how we manage stress, and assess our levels of anxiety and depression. It is important to normalize talking to our physicians about our mental health as well as our physical health — they are undeniably intertwined.
Unfortunately, stigmas still exists about discussing mental health, but it is important for men to talk about how they are doing and feeling with their doctors. If a man is struggling emotionally, their doctor can help connect them with a mental health service provider.
If you are reading this column and you are a man, make an appointment for a checkup. Encourage other males, family and friends, to visit their doctor. When men collaborate with their doctors to prevent health problems, manage chronic conditions, and learn more about their health, they are not only taking the best care of themselves, they eliminate a source of worry for their loved ones.
Tonia W. Hale, DNP, MAOM, BSN, RN, is Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer of Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine. Hale is a proven leader with 35 years of progressive healthcare experience. A native of East Tennessee, she holds an associate’s degree in nursing from Walters State Community College, a baccalaureate degree in nursing from the University of Tennessee, a master’s degree in organizational management from Tusculum University, and a doctor of nursing practice degree in executive leadership from East Tennessee State University. Ms. Hale is currently a resident of Burnsville.