Men’s health is often the unspoken “elephant in the room” whenever healthcare disparities are discussed.

While it’s great that our healthcare system is actively addressing racial and ethnic disparities, gender disparities are glaring and commonly ignored in developing interventions and programs.

The numbers are clear on the matter. In Philadelphia:

  • The life expectancy for men is seven years less than that of women.
  • Black men have the lowest life expectancy of all racial/ethnic groups, dying from heart disease, lung and colorectal cancer, diabetes, homicide, and even COVID at significantly higher rates than women.
  • Men also experience more opioid overdoses.
  • Men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide.
  • Men are less likely than women to follow up with care after being discharged from hospitals. 

There are multiple reasons for these disparities. A simplistic explanation is that men are less likely to seek healthcare. That certainly holds true for the men in my family. Helping them understand that chronic symptoms won’t just go away and convincing them to work with a healthcare provider for preventive care is quite a challenge.

Understanding why men don’t go to the doctor or therapy needs to be studied.  As a licensed clinician providing behavioral health support in various settings over the years, I know that men frequently share that they don’t feel engaged when they go for help and that they may want to speak to a male clinician, but there isn’t one available. Men’s inclination toward self-reliance can also be a barrier to seeking care.  

Beyond metrics, men’s health also has a broader impact. Men’s wellness is tied to the wellbeing of families and communities. For example, a man’s mental and chronic illness affects the quality of relationships with family members. Illness and premature death can also negatively impact a family’s financial well-being. 

What can be done?  From an equity lens, we need to first stop perceiving the elimination of all disparities as a zero-sum game – that focusing on men’s health might marginalize women’s health.

We also need to take an honest look at the ways in which existing systems and operations function to disengage men and work intentionally to make changes. I think of this when I’m in my doctor’s waiting room and every magazine and educational handout is targeted to women.

The recruitment of male clinicians also is essential for an equitable clinical environment.

Finally, men need to encourage men to value self-care. This includes being purposeful with positive behaviors and being intentional in maintaining a relationship with a healthcare provider. Taking control of our health may be the ultimate act of self-reliance.

About the Author: Frank Johnson, Ph.D., is the Director of Primary Care Behavioral Health at Community Behavioral Health, a division of the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.