The future of men’s health in a digital world can take a lesson from the past

The scientific literature on men avoiding medical care is well established. We know the problem. Studies have shown that men use less preventive healthcare services than women, and do not seek immediate treatment for many of their unique health problems. We even know why the problem exists. Masculine norms—the assumed behavior of toughness and pushing through pain – motivate men to avoid seeking healthcare services. Why hasn’t the healthcare industry adequately addressed these cultural stigmas?

History offers a useful lesson. In 1900, the gap in life expectancy for men and women born in the United States was a mere two years. As gynecology and obstetrics became established fields, and women’s health inspired a broad-scale political movement, the medical knowledge of women’s health expanded and the childbirth mortality rate fell. The effect was measurable. By 2017, the gap in life expectancy reached 5 years. To respond to the cultural norms surrounding men’s health, the healthcare industry can learn a lot from the evolution of women’s healthcare over the last 100 years.

While OB/GYN practitioners became common, a corresponding specialty in the field of men’s health never emerged. Life expectancy is only one consequence of the disparity in preventive care. The gulf between how the sexes engage with the healthcare system is vast. Women are able to begin a continuous conversation with a gynecologist from a very early age. They’re made aware of the unique issues around their own reproductive health beginning in adolescence. Annual checkups become a regular occurrence at age 18.

This timeline is not typical of most men. They might not visit a urologist, proctologist, reproductive endocrinologist, or another specialist until a specific diagnosis demands treatment. To that point in their medical journey, men are largely left alone to educate themselves on their unique needs. As doctor-patient relationships transition more fully to a digital world, it is critical to reflect on how men’s needs can be met more proactively than the history of offline healthcare suggests.

While online platforms focusing on men’s health are in their relative infancy, women’s healthcare has evolved in a short period of time. Dozens of apps in Google Play, or the iPhone App Store, allow patients to engage with doctors, request prescription refills, or schedule tests. More are coming. In 2019, the “FemTech” industry — software and technology companies addressing women’s biological needs — reportedly generated $821 million in global revenue and received $592 million in venture capital investment.

Many of these FemTech apps have shown promise where traditional healthcare methods do not. According to one survey, women are 75 percent more likely to use digital tools for healthcare than men. This is fueled at least in part by the success of apps related to pregnancy and fertility. Some, for example, help eliminate the guesswork of knowing where a woman is in her fertility cycle. Others assist intended mothers with self-monitoring during the process of conceiving.

The most successful apps in any genre design around the habits of their target audience. Rather than asking users to change their behavior, they meet them where they are. The reason this approach works is tied directly to the human psyche. The psychologist Wendy Wood wrote about the power of habits in her book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick. Her research estimates that 43 percent of our daily behaviors are habitual, performed without conscious thought. We’re all on auto-pilot nearly half the time. If men are habitually hesitant to engage with their healthcare provider off-line, why should we expect a similarly designed digital product to inspire greater engagement?

The transition to a digital world offers the healthcare and healthtech industries a fresh start. To break through the stigmas men face around engaging proactively with their own health, a more male-centric approach is needed. If men in the targeted demographic have a habit of playing games while sitting on their couch, design a health app that allows them to play games while sitting on their couch. A health app focused on a universal issue – diet, exercise, mental health – might require gender-specific tweaks to generate engagement among men.

By recognizing how the specific healthcare needs of men and women differed, a massive change was set in motion over the last century. Women’s health needs began to receive the attention they deserved from medical professionals. Men’s health, underserved in the digital space and stigmatized in public conversation, deserves a similar revolution.

Photo: 3283197d_273, Getty Images

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