Getting men to look after themselves
Incredible as it may seem, and despite huge advances in medicine, men are living no longer now than they were in 1970. In fact, an unskilled labourer can expect to live on average one year less than his counterpart in 1972 - just 68.2 years.
Not only that, but suicide rates over the last 30 years have doubled, as have cases of testicular cancer. Prostate cancer is up by more than a third and chronic liver disease is now an unbelievable five times more prevalent. Men, if anything, have become less healthy while the rest of society has benefited from the latest drugs and technology, it seems.
Why is this? And what can we do about it? Politicians across the UK and indeed around the world have been asking these very questions, and a new plan by the Scottish Health Minister Margaret Smith hopes to tackle the problem head on.
If the mountain won't go to Mohammed
Ms Smith wants to set up "modern man clinics" in places where men are more liable to use them, such as at work or in shopping centres. "Men are less likely to access healthcare in traditional ways," she says. "And so we are throwing out ideas in our aim of developing men's health issues. We have got to get to grips with how people are living their life as a whole."
The problem is that men rarely come into contact with health services. "Women virtually don't have any choice, what with childbirth and kids and the menopause," Ms Smith points out. Women are far more likely to take the children to the doctor, and these visits often involve "while I'm here, doctor" consultations that solve many health problems.
This argument is backed up by Dartford MP Dr Howard Stoate who was so concerned about the failure of men to seek out health services that he formed an All-Party group dedicated to male health. He is also on the Commons Health Select Committee and a major figure behind the UK voluntary organisation Men's Health Forum.
"Men die younger, have more cancer and greater heart disease," he says. "They are far more likely to end up dead but when there is a problem, they are more likely to say, 'Oh, it's nothing'. They are less likely to seek help and then less likely to listen to it when they do."
The silent type
It's not happening just in the UK either. "You can see the same pattern in any developed country," says Dr Stoate. "Men often say it's because GPs' surgeries are not open at the right times or that places where they can seek help are not accessible. Clinics can be daunting and, on top of that, men just don't open up - they don't talk to other people about their problems."
Ms Smith uses an example of one man who had terrible headaches and was forced by his wife to visit his GP. "When he got there he was told his doctor had died 15 years ago. He hadn't been to a doctor for 25 years."
Is there a doctor in the pub?
So what's being done to tackle the problem? "We are looking at possible annual male health checks," Ms Smith reveals. "Then, of course, 'modern man' clinics in workplaces, shopping centres - places where men feel comfortable."
She says she has yet to hear of other similar models but points to Germany's culture of regular health checks and the extremely successful campaigns in Scandinavia to reduce heart disease and cancer rates among men. "We are more than happy to hear ideas from other countries," she says.
Dr Stoate has a few ideas of his own. "If you take health issues to men, they are far more likely to react positively. So we go to places like rugby clubs, men's clubs, and talk to men in their own settings where they are more likely to talk and be receptive." He also focuses on the workplace and the Post Office.
The Scottish government has already set up one scheme to encourage companies to promote health issues. Ms Smith says the plan will also benefit employers because their staff will be less likely to become ill.
Dr Stoate agrees that bringing health into the workplace does seem to work but warns that any such scheme will fail if staff think their employers are spying on them. "But, in general, if it's a case of testing your blood pressure during a tea break, it has to be a good thing," he says.
Ms Smith is also cautious. "We need to get to more small businesses, and give them access to information and to counselling. But then of course the workplace is not necessarily the best place as many men will see it as a distraction from work."
Whatever method is ultimately chosen, it is clear that something has to be done to encourage men to review their own health. Fortunately, those in a position to do something about it are aware of the issue.
"The message is getting through," says Ms Smith. "But this is still something of great concern."
Men's Health Forum