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Men are paying with their lives for unequal health funding

Categories: Medical

Males pay with their lives for the tiny amount of health funding they get compared with females.

If you’re a Kiwi male, you have a lower life expectancy than your female counterparts. In your youth you’re at higher risk of dying from suicide. You’re more likely to suffer injury or death from accident. Heart disease strikes far earlier and your lifestyle may be setting you up for a range of cancers. Yet far fewer resources are allocated to men’s health problems than women’s.

It’s a conundrum, says Professor David Baxter. “If you look at where funding goes in this country, it tends to be primarily to women’s health. For every $1 the Health Research Council spends exclusively on women’s health, 6c goes to men.”

Baxter is working to close the gap by establishing a Centre for Men’s Health at the University of Otago. This will provide a forum for those working in the field, from medical researchers to support groups, and help identify and respond to men’s differing health needs.

“The feedback I’ve been getting from charities and men’s groups is that men’s health tends to be invisible,” he says.

The attention it does draw is mostly focused on testicular and prostate cancer. These diseases have received about half the funding allocated by the Health Research Council to men’s issues since 2010 despite their accounting for only 4.4% of male deaths a year.

“When I give talks and try to get across that men’s health is not just about waterworks and sexual function, people can be quite surprised,” says Baxter. “The work done by charities to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancer is great, but it allows us to miss the point that other cancers are bigger killers – men die earlier and at a faster rate of stomach cancer than women, for instance.”

Between the ages of 50 and 75, the number of deaths for men is 30% higher than for women. Māori men fare particularly badly – they can expect their lives to be seven years shorter on average than non-Māori men.

There are numerous reasons men have been left so far behind in the health stakes. They’re less likely to go for check-ups, are prey to a macho “she’ll be right” mentality and, in the absence of a male equivalent to feminism, the philosophical element is missing. But some of it comes down to basics.

“Even the places where healthcare is provided tend not to be men-friendly,” says Baxter. “You walk into a waiting area and it’s full of women’s magazines and potted plants and painted in pastel colours – welcoming but not necessarily to men.”

Keeping men alive for longer may involve targeting them through sports clubs and men’s-shed organisations to change unhealthy behaviours. He believes after-hours clinics, particularly for those in rural areas, may encourage more men to pay attention to healthcare.

Baxter is also the director of the National Science Challenge for Ageing Well, and says we need to change the mindset across the generations. “It’s about young men, old men and the boys who are the men of tomorrow.”

In October, Baxter and a research team made a case in the New Zealand Medical Journal for the need for us to follow countries such as Australia, the UK and Ireland and create a men’s health strategy to shape policy and take men’s well-being centre stage.

Some might argue that men are their own worst enemies. If they lead damaging lifestyles and avoid going to the doctor, then it’s no wonder that a man dies every three hours of a preventable illness.

Baxter says a shift is needed in some masculine ways of thinking. He sees Sir John Kirwan’s work tackling the stigma around mental health issues as an example of the kind of thing that can be done. “We’ve got to allow men to be men, but some of the masculinity isn’t helpful,” he says.

Occasionally he comes across the attitude that men’s health doesn’t need extra support. “But they die about three years earlier, which is a good argument for focusing on it. Having healthy men who are going to be around to be fathers and grandfathers is important.”

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.