Much has been written about how women’s health has historically been massively underserved because men are treated as the ‘default’ and women as a niche, rather than equal.
This has led to consequences like a significant medical gender data gap and women often suffering in silence for years, and sometimes even leaving the workforce, because of the menopause, period related pains, endometriosis, fibroids, fertility issues etc. That’s why the Government recently announced its ‘Women’s Health Strategy’ which includes much more investment into female-focused research and conditions (see article on this here).
However, while it might be easy to think that the healthcare system has been ‘easier’ or ‘geared’ for men, and disadvantageous for women, this is not strictly true. While there have undoubtedly been some grave inequalities in healthcare on the gender front, men have their own particular challenges when it comes to actually accessing care.
Women benefit from ‘regular touchpoints’
As Laura Carter-Penman, deputy director of women’s health, Peppy, says, men have much less “regular touchpoints” with the healthcare system than women do: “Often women will go for contraceptive care in their teens. Then in our early 20s we’re called for smear testing. Then, if a woman goes onto have a family, she’ll have regular contact with the midwife and health visitors. Then, when older, there’s regular mammogram screening. All those touchpoints build up health literacy.”
Men, by contrast, don’t tend to accumulate this health literacy, which could be one reason why they often access healthcare support less readily than women. It could also explain why, as Helen Lake, director of men’s health services, Peppy, says, “the statistics on men’s health are absolutely dire”. She gives the examples of the fact that men make up 75% of suicides and 76% of cardiovascular deaths and they die of cancer more.
The statistics on men’s health are “absolutely dire”
“There’s no national screening in terms of prostate or testicular cancer,” she says. “So it’s very much up to the man to decide there’s a problem and communicate with the healthcare service and, sometimes, they don’t know where to start, so men are dying because of that.”
Another challenge when considering men, says Lake, is that they see a generic health message raising awareness of a specific issue and “the way it’s presented, they just don’t think it applies to them, so the messaging is very important”. She gives the example, in particular, of weight loss initiatives which men think “it’s just not talking to them”.
Carter-Penman agrees that using language and imagery that resonates with men is crucial. For instance, in the past, health promotion campaigns have used fruit – such as avocados, walnuts or kiwi fruits – to represent testicles in a bid to catch male attention. She speculates that, perhaps, this kind of approach isn’t so necessary with women because “they’ve picked up a bit of [health] terminology because they’ve spent time in GP surgeries and other touchpoints”.
Embarrassment prevents men from seeking support
Embarrassment is often an obstacle to men accessing healthcare too. According to Lake, many of the problems that concern men are around sexual function, such as erectile dysfunction.
“Erectile dysfunction tends to be joked about in popular culture but it can be a hidden sign of cardiovascular disease,” says Lake. A way to get around this embarrassment is providing anonymous or virtual services, such as a virtual GP, where men are reassured it won’t be discussed at work or in front of anyone else.
Peer to peer support networks are also another effective way to engage men. Peppy has successfully set these up in relation to fertility issues. Fertility Network UK, too, has just started running male only groups and they’ve been very well attended.
“When you get groups of men together who are going through a similar problem, they actually really support each other,” says Lake. “It’s about creating that platform to enable them to bounce off each other.”
The ‘Davina effect’
As for women’s health, this has been a hot topic in the media recently, particularly in relation to the menopause, which is now talked about openly in workplaces – so much so that men are even volunteering to be menopause ambassadors. Carter-Penman calls this the “Davina effect” [TV presenter Davina McCall has campaigned for greater awareness of the menopause, fronting TV documentaries and writing a book, ‘Menopausing’].
While describing this effect as “amazing” Carter-Penman also believes this focus has created its own challenges too: “Now we also need to concentrate on other areas of women’s health like, for example, baby loss, fertility care, access to breast screening etc. And it’s great that the government, in its new women’s health strategy, has recognised that more research needs to be done and that there are several areas of women’s health that have been under-served, but it’s going to take a while.”
Another pressing challenge for women’s healthcare is – now that there’s much more awareness of female related conditions – how female employees then ask for support and how employers support them as they go through the treatment process.
Endometriosis and fibroids can be “absolutely debilitating”
As Carter-Penman says, conditions like endometriosis and fibroids can be “absolutely debilitating” so sufferers need support in order for them to continue being productive. “It’s about recognising the signs and symptoms and then being able to have those open conversations about how help can be given and what’s available in terms of healthcare benefits,” she says.
Attitudes have shifted significantly on this front with many companies now offering, for example, time off after a miscarriage and for those undertaking fertility treatment. Some companies even provide economic support for fertility treatment, too.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that women and men’s bodies are different, as are their experiences of the healthcare system, so they require a different approach in supporting their health.
However, while it’s important to have gender-specific approaches, some progressive employers realise that a healthcare strategy needs to go even further than this and – beyond gender – needs to be about the individual. As Sharmila Kupfuwa, head of health, BMW Group, says:
“Businesses and workplaces need to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all. Once they recognise that then – whether an employee is male, female, non-binary, transgender, for example – then inclusivity will prevail.”
This article was based on our Lunch & Learn webinar “One Size Fits None: how to offer gender-inclusive health support at work”
You might want to listen to the webinar here: