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Picking a Doctor: the Gender Factor

The Healthy Man

May 14, 2001|Timothy Gower

I recently switched health plans and had to choose a new primary-care doctor. My new HMO only does business with a few physicians in my area, so my choices were limited. I could have picked a doctor whose practice is just down the street from my house, but instead opted for another whose office is 10 miles away. Why? Because the latter guy is a guy, while the doctor in my neighborhood is a Deborah.

For all I know, Dr. Deborah is a talented and caring healer, but I simply prefer having a male doc perform my physical exams. Always have, always will. But I'm beginning to wonder if I'll always have that option. In 1970, about 7% of the doctors in the United States were women, according to the American Medical Assn. That figure has risen to more than 23% today and it's climbing fast. Statistics from the Assn. of American Medical Colleges show that about half of all students entering medical school in the United States are women.

I'm all for the advancement of women in medicine, but is the time coming when men who prefer male general practitioners could have trouble finding one? It may already be here. My friend Steve says his HMO gave him a list of doctors to pick from, but none of the male physicians was accepting new patients. What if he didn't want to be touched by a woman he barely knew?

I know what female readers are thinking: How does it feel, boys? We've been getting examined by male strangers for years. In fact, so many women in the United States today insist on seeing female obstetricians and gynecologists that male medical students are beginning to avoid those specialties. Studies have shown that many women are more comfortable in the care of other women.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that some men might rather discuss certain personal health matters, well, man to man. "I've seen instances where younger women physicians don't relate well to men," says Dr. David Gremillion, an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina.

The communication problem can be particularly serious when a man suffers from impotence or some other sexual-health problem, says Gremillion, who is also a board member of the Men's Health Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes awareness of male health issues. In those cases, doctors need to ask some sensitive questions. How often do you have sex? Can you describe your erections? Do you wake up aroused?

Some female physicians, Gremillion suspects, "may have a hesitancy or discomfort when speaking of those issues. And that's immediately sensed by the patient." It's tough enough getting some men to see a doctor regularly; Gremillion worries that an awkward encounter with a physician might drive a man away for good.

A study published last year found that many male adolescents preferred women doctors. But most of them were boys raised by single moms, which may have explained why they felt more comfortable with a woman, says Gremillion. He believes that most adult males prefer to be examined by other men, though there aren't any recent statistics on the issue. So I asked a dozen guys I know whether they see male or female doctors, and why. Though scientifically meaningless, my mini-survey did yield some interesting responses.

One friend, for instance, said he feared having a spontaneous erection in front of a female physician--an occurrence that Gremillion says does happen from time to time. To my surprise, two of my friends insist on seeing female physicians.

Gremillion says that the latter two fellows are exceptions, but psychologist Michael Addis, who studies masculinity issues at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., says there's nothing unusual about a man preferring a female doctor.

Men, Addis explains, are sort of touchy about being touched. That is, we're more likely than women to interpret physical contact as having underlying sexual meaning. "If another guy touches us, it either means we're gay or he's trying to get in our pants. That's what you're taught as a kid," says Addis. Status is another influence on our doctor preferences, he says. Highly competitive men may be reluctant to discuss what they perceive as their own physical inadequacies with other men.

Regardless of your own preference, just be sure of this: Try to find a doctor who makes you feel comfortable and see him or her on a regular basis. Last year, a survey by a private foundation called the Commonwealth Fund found that one out of three men didn't have a regular doctor to turn to when they were sick or needed medical advice. Gremillion says that healthy men under age 60 should have a complete physical at least every other year; older men should follow their doctor's guidelines.

And if your HMO requires you to see a doctor whose gender makes you uneasy, be honest with him or her about your concerns. One of my friends was nervous the first time his male physician prepared to perform a digital rectal exam on him, and said so. But the doc eased the tension by responding, "If it makes you feel any better, this won't be the highlight of my morning, either."

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Timothy Gower can be reached by e-mail at tgower@mediaone.net. The Healthy Man appears the second Monday of the month.

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