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Ask a Doc: Men’s Health and Primary Care

In our Ask a Doc series, we sit down with physicians and other clinical experts across our networks, including Allegheny Health Network (AHN), for a chat on an important health topic. In this edition, we’re talking about men’s health with Dr. Harry Myers, a family physician.

You may think of men as being rugged and “lower maintenance” when it comes to health. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, men and boys have worse health outcomes than women and girls, including dying sooner.

For Men’s Health Month, I talked to Dr. Harry Myers, an Allegheny Health Network (AHN) primary care doctor, and my own primary care doctor, to find out what men need to know when it comes to taking care of their health.

Bryce Walat (BW): What do you see as the most significant health concerns for men in your practice?

Dr. Harry Myers

Dr. Harry Myers (HM): Heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, accidents, and mental health are some of the more common issues facing men today. Along with those, there are male-specific concerns like prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Getting the right preventive care, like annual checkups and health screenings, can make a big difference when it comes to catching problems like these early before they become more serious, and even preventing them in the first place.

Trouble is, many men I know take better care of their cars, houses, and lawn mowers than they take care of themselves. A lot of men put off going to the doctor and taking care of their “preventive maintenance.”

BW: What do you think keeps men from getting the “preventive maintenance”?

HM: Time, convenience, and access are among the biggest obstacles, I think. I’m a really busy guy, and I empathize with that struggle. Working men, and women, too, may have to take time off work to see their doctors, which is time they often can’t afford to take.

That’s why it’s important to choose a primary care doctor or practice that offers flexible schedules, same-day, weekend and evening appointments, or even virtual visits or electronic access.

Here’s another way to think about it. Many people use the first day of fall as a cue to call the heating system repair company to clean and check the furnace before winter. You can apply that to your health. For instance, make the first day of fall a cue to get your flu shot. Or schedule your annual preventive exam around your birthday to make it easier to remember.

Men, especially, tend to have the mindset of, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” But it’s better to know when something might go wrong and fix it before it does, so that your car, furnace, or body doesn’t fail you.

BW: There are factors beyond men’s control that affect health, such as genetics, hormones, and anatomy. What factors can men control, and how much of a difference do they make?

HM: While you’re right that there are things that men can’t control, we don’t have to just “sit there and take it.” The basic things you learned about health when you were growing up, like don’t smoke or chew tobacco, go easy on the alcohol and caffeine, say no to drugs, get regular exercise, get regular checkups, and eat a balanced diet, still apply today.

More men than women work in stressful, physically demanding, and dangerous jobs, and men are more likely to take part in dangerous recreational activities. So, when you’re at work or having fun, you need to use the proper equipment and follow the rules meant to protect your health and safety.

Hand coming out of water

BW: To what extent do you think that gender stereotypes, like “real men suck it up and play through the pain,” and “it’s not manly to ask for help,” keep men from taking care of themselves?

HM: From what I see in my practice, men born during the Baby Boomer era and before are more likely to have grown up hearing those kinds of stereotypical messages. Younger men, I think, haven’t heard them as much, and fortunately, the men I see today are a lot more involved in their health and are less hesitant to ask for help.

BW: What are some areas of concern for men’s “holistic health,” such as mental, emotional, and spiritual health?

HM: These areas are extremely important to men, and women, too, yet they’re the most difficult things for both doctors and patients to discuss and deal with. I see a lot of patients come to me with fatigue, pain, lack of concentration, sleeplessness, and other symptoms that turn out to be symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Many times, there is a stigma of “weakness” or “personal failure” associated with mental health issues, particularly with men. Again, gender stereotypes play a part. Many men have the notion that “real men don’t cry” and “real men don’t talk about problems, they fix them.”

Here’s an observation from my own family: When one of my daughters would get hurt, I would tend to console them with lots of hugs and encouraging words, yet when the same thing happened to my son, I would tell him to get up and “shake it off.” I think we treat mental health issues the same way, if only subconsciously, and that’s not a good thing.

The good news is that this is changing for the better, and more men finally feel OK when it comes to stepping forward and talking about mental health.

BW: What should men look for when choosing a primary care doctor?

HM: Convenience and accessibility are significant considerations. So look for a primary care doctor or practice that has flexible scheduling for evening, weekend, and same-day visits.

If you have any chronic conditions or disabilities, ask doctors about their experience in working with patients with those conditions or disabilities. Don’t forget about any cultural factors, such as languages your doctor speaks.

Most importantly, look for a good match with respect to personality and communication preferences. For example, you may prefer a doctor who not only tells you what you need to do, but also tells you why and how to do it. Or, you may be content to have a doctor who just gives you orders. Another preference might be between a doctor who is easier to contact via email or online versus a doctor you communicate with by phone.

BW: Do you have any helpful tips for men in working with their doctors?

HM: First, come prepared to your visit with a written checklist of issues you want to talk about. It doesn’t matter whether you use a notebook or a smartphone app, or other online tools. What matters is that you have a way to keep track of things like the medications you take and any symptoms you’ve had and for how long.

Be honest with your doctor. Don’t hold back or try to “sugar coat” your problems. And don’t worry about being embarrassed — your doctor is a professional.

You know “that guy” who tries to assemble a piece of furniture without following instructions, or drives around aimlessly and won’t stop and ask for directions? Don’t be “that guy” when it comes to your health:

  • Follow up with your doctor when you’re advised to do so.
  • Get any recommended tests or screenings done when advised to do so.
  • Take any prescribed medications as recommended.
  • Tell your doctor if you have any side effects from the medications you’re taking. Don’t just stop taking it.

BW: If you could give just one piece of advice when it comes to men’s health, what would it be?

HM: Take control of your health, stay active, and don’t delay in getting care. You can’t help the others in your life if you aren’t healthy yourself.

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