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‘Men’s attitude to their health needs to change’

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On the face of it the division of labour in our house is not gender specific. My wife and I work the same hours and do the same amount of child care. Arguably, that is where our ‘equality’ ends.

I am tall so tend to take care of higher-up stuff. Shelves, for example, or basketball challenges issued by the Harlem Globetrotters. She is small so looks after stuff nearer the ground, like vacuum cleaning or Greco-Roman wrestling.

Like many couples we try to form a team. She believes the vacuum cleaner is best used for sucking up dirt; I think it is best used when pretending to be a storm trooper. We muddle by. Well, I do. She’d quite like her own house.

Last week the Equality and Human Rights Commission told the NHS to take urgent action to end anti-male discrimination. It wrote to strategic health authorities warning them to ensure GPs and hospitals give equal priority to men. The commission detailed areas of concern – men are twice as likely as women to die from the 10 most common cancers that affect both sexes and typically develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women.

The Men’s Health Forum points out that the GP model doesn’t work well for men, as they are twice as likely as women to work full-time and three times as likely to work overtime. Because of a new law called The Gender Equality Duty, health services will – if they don’t respond to these inequalities – be in breach of their legal responsibilities.

And yet what does one imagine the SHAs’ response can be? To demand GPs change their opening hours? We know that access alone won’t make men visit the doctor – if GPs started doing random house calls blokes would hide behind the sofa until they were gone. And can health services influence the lifestyle choices that contribute to heart disease or some of the common cancers? Or is that a wider responsibility?

There remain significant inequalities in the NHS despite the founding premise of access and care for all. But reconstructing it to take into account the oppressed minority known as ‘men’ might be beyond us.

Health services can and should target men for health education and screening for heart disease and prostate cancer – if they can get a reliable enough screening tool. But, ultimately, men’s attitude to their own health needs to change.

Despite decades of proposed equality, the assumption men and women can choose to work or parent equally is a myth. For many men social roles remain the same. And where roles stay the same, so do attitudes.

We can’t realistically impose ‘equality’ on men within the health service. Adjusting services may be part of the response. Flexible GP hours, clinics in workplaces or even pubs can help. But attitudes need to change too and it isn’t realistic to give the NHS responsibility for that.

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