Are Women’s Rampant Egos Driving Us to the Doctor?

Written by Lucy Berrington

Why do women visit the doctor more frequently than men do? Because we believe we are extraordinary, therefore our illnesses must be extraordinary too.

So says “Sick is the New Black,” a report in the December issue of Marie Claire. Its startling finding is based on “Kate,” a former co-worker of the journalist, whose every cough or itch reportedly sent her rushing to the clinic. Kate “happened to use doctors the way Beyoncé wannabes use YouTube—to prove they’re somehow special,” writes journalist Sarah Z. Wexler. (We must take her word for that, as for so many of her claims.)

The story asks, “Why are so many women freaking out about getting sick?” But it doesn’t establish that women are freaking out about getting sick. It merely notes what we’ve known for many years, that women seek health care more frequently than men do and that women’s rate of health care usage has increased: 73 percent of women have contacted a health professional in the last six months versus 59 percent of men (according to the National Health Interview Survey (PDF), Centers for Disease Control, 2010).

Wexler’s first egregious act is assuming that men’s health care usage is the neutral number, the baseline, against which women’s behavior must be compared and found frivolous. She does not consider the possibility that women’s behavior is closer to the ideal, that men are not seeing their doctors enough. This, though, is the discussion among physicians and researchers who cite men’s underuse of health care services as a factor in the widening gap in life expectancy between men and women since the 1920s.

Granted, it’s possible to make the case that women might be freaking out about getting sick, if freaking out can mean worrying with good reason. Almost two-thirds of women (versus 52 percent of men) recently reported delaying or skipping health care in the past year because of its cost, and 42 percent (versus 33 percent of men) had substituted home or over-the-counter remedies for doctors’ visits (according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll (PDF), 2012). Far more women aged 25-34, a prime Marie Claire cohort, are either uninsured (24 percent) or reliant on Medicaid (30 percent) than have private health insurance (29 percent), says the Kaiser Women’s Health Survey, 2011. If women are freaking out, it’s probably because they can’t afford to see their doctors.

Yet Wexler’s unwavering focus is on women’s 34 million “extra” doctor visits a year. She suggests that direct-to-consumer TV advertising and “cable news virus-mongering” might contribute, without offering evidence that they freak out women more than men, or considering that women’s behavior might be rational. But these explanations are gestures, anyway, because the real reason for those extra visits is that thing about Kate feeling too special to have an ordinary cold. “This mentality rings true for a lot of women,” says Wexler. To substitute for them, she quotes another of her acquaintances, an Overworking New York High Achiever (ONYHA): “When my husband gets sick, I think he only has a cold and is being a big baby. But when I get sick, I’m gravely concerned it’s life-threatening, like cancer.” (Why this necessarily indicates arrogance rather than anxiety isn’t clear.)

Since we’re going the anecdotal route, I or pretty much any other woman in the world, could provide a slew of personal stories “demonstrating” the opposite theme: tales of husbands with ingrown toenails and advanced cases of self-pity retiring to bed while their hapless wives with 105-degree fevers and broken legs give birth, wallpaper the nursery, wrestle and spit-roast wild pigs. This is the dominant sexual-politics-and-health narrative, and though its dominance doesn’t make it true—

You know what? It’s true.

It’s also true that some people, perhaps like Kate and the ONYHA, are unduly worried about their health. Others are unduly worried about flying or parties, big dogs or butterflies, terrorism or thunder. Is there anyone whose fears are exactly calibrated to measured risk? Some people are even unduly anxious about going to the doctor.

Guess who? Men.

The evidence for why men underuse medical services is limited but certainly a flight of steps up from Wexler’s on women. A small Canadian study in 1999 found that men are much less likely than women to discuss their health socially, and tend to seek health support from their partners rather than physicians. They are embarrassed at having to talk to female receptionists or care providers. They tend to wait until they’re unarguably sick. A Rutgers study in 2011 found that men with a strong sense of machismo are half as likely to seek preventive health care services as men with moderate beliefs about masculinity. And unlike women, with our regimen of birth control consults and pap smears, men aren’t accustomed to regular doctor visits from early adulthood. “A third haven’t had a checkup in more than a year. Almost half don’t even have a doctor,” wrote Esquire in its 2011 men’s health survey.

If these guys want additional reasons to avoid doctors’ appointments, Wexler provides one: Medical care is itself a source of infections. Right. Overall, though, low use of primary care services is associated with worse health outcomes. People who don’t see their doctors tend not to take care of themselves in other ways, and they miss the warning signs of serious disease. Men are more likely than women to be hospitalized for preventable illness, often at great expense. Consequently, increasing the use of primary care among those who tend to avoid it is regarded as key to improving health and reducing health care costs.

Perhaps Anne Fulenwider, the incoming editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, will respect her readers enough to accept that a health report based on anecdote and assumption is not a health report. Maybe some roguish sub-editor already senses this. “Sick is the New Black” includes highlighted statistics that appear to argue against the premise of the story: “200 thousand Americans hospitalized every year for the flu or flu complications” seems to rationalize Kate’s dash for help at the first hint of symptoms. If only this conflicted (or just confused) sub-editor had also come up with a headline that didn’t smack of racial denigration. Even as a quip about fashion, “Sick is the New Black” fails. Why mock your readers’ health care practices? Sick is saying sick is the new black.

The biggest irony comes when the story blames Kate and the ONYHA for keeping us waiting for appointments: “21 minutes, the average national wait to see a physician.” If there’s anything in this article that indicates an inflated sense of self (other than using a national platform to sneer at a former colleague) it’s the notion that waiting 21 minutes to see a 21st century western doctor is unacceptable. There’s nothing like a global or historical perspective, even an uninsured American perspective, to expose the real self-awareness gap.

This post was originally published by Ms. Magazine.


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Photo via Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


Ted V.
Ted V4 years ago

But women ARE extraordinary!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

My hubby goes to the doctor much more than I do.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Interesting article.

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia5 years ago

Probably because the partiarchy teaches women it's okay to ask for help and take care of themselves, but if a man does it, he loose creditibility. I also couldnt help but remember reading that women live longer than men...

Vicky P.
Vicky P5 years ago

Sexist claims from a crap magazine aimed at women, makes me wonder sometimes about these mags

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


Margaret C S.
Margaret S5 years ago

I really despise "womens" magazines that belittle their readership, but that's the media for you. This is fairly typical media backlash on feminism. Note how (I went ahead and read the MC article) the author's "friend and examples" are "Type A" personalities (feminists) that develop mysterious mental problems that are probably due to stress from being "overachievers". The article does make minor reference to the media hype regarding illness (bird flu, swine flu, west nile virus, cancer, stroke, heart attack, lurking spiders on the toilet seat, etc...) and drug ads urging self-diagnosis. Even Care2 has headlines today on strokes, cancer cures, clothing toxins and other health threats.
Also, women are usually more exposed to contagious illnesses due to traditionally female careers in public service (retail, nursing, teaching, food, etc...). I imagine that men in similar work situations have the same kind of health problems and need medical help more often than their white and blue collar counterparts. Another factor may be more extensive exposure to kids. Kids can really cook up some seriously hazardous germs.

Lynda Duke
Lynda Duke5 years ago

And Ron....I don't think politics is the demographic answer as to why women go to the doctor more. I think we go to the doctor more because MEN don't go as often as they should.

Your answer is about as dumb as the dumbest Republican nitwit who thinks women should have more babies. GET REAL!

Klaus Peters
Klaus Peters5 years ago

Well, my wife frequently goes to the doctor and I used to go to the same doctor for periodical check ups and I say used to. Every time I went there he asked for tests to be made even before I could tell him my problems, but I could sense it was information from my wife who made him do it and all those tests proved to be OK. But the real problem was never addressed, I have a heart condition and I never went back for almost 3 years and my aspirin intake has stabilized that condition. But there were days when I felt so lousy, I took a shower, changed my clothes and sat near the unlocked front door with a cell phone in my hand ready to ring 000.
Nothing against my wife, she is over concerned and thinks I may have lung cancer because I used to smoke many years ago, or I may have liver cancer because I like a glass of wine, or I might have prostrate cancer because I had kidney stones 20 years ago, or brain cancer because I had huge migranes all my life.
I think the mother instinct seems to come in here and an overkill at that, and after 40 years of marriage I can understand this. I better see an independent doctor, hopefully to give my wife peace of mind.
We men are so proud and do not want to show our weaknesses to our partners, it is not always the best way to go.

Lynda Duke
Lynda Duke5 years ago

Though getting sick is natural, I don't want to be sick. Its no fun, and I hate complaining about every pain in my body. We hear enough of various conditions, but I would rather work to be healthy than running to the doctor's office. I hate needles, I hate probes, I hate any sort of physical invasion. SICK is not fun! And SICK shouldn't be part of one's ego problems.....ego only gets in the way. Take care of your bodies.