Get Thee to the Doctor

An examination of Black men’s reluctance to visit the doctor’s office

Photo by Shawn Lee

t’s no different than taking care of your house. Preventative measures are more effective, cheaper and causes less stress than waiting until the roof caves in.

So, why not take a preventative approach to care for your health by regularly visiting your doctor?

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Dr. Derek Griffith, director of the University of Michigan’s Center on Men's Health Disparities, conducted a study to try and answer the age-old question: Why don’t Black men like going to the doctor?

Along with fellow researchers, Julie Allen and Katie Gunter, he asked 105 Black men from Ypsilanti and Flint, ages 33 to 77, what makes them dread the man or woman in the white coat.

“It’s not that they didn’t want to go or were uninterested in their health. They just didn’t like what happened when they went,” says Griffith, also the assistant director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health at the University of Michigan. He says that African-American women are two times as likely as African-American men to have gone to the doctor.

According to the study, Black men avoid physicians’ offices because of lack of health coverage, mistrust of doctors and diagnoses, fears of negative news about their health, concerns about possibly being told to take off work, family and friends’ negative attitudes about doctors and unsatisfactory or disrespectful attitudes of health care professionals.

Dr. Aaron Maddox, an internal medicine physician at Detroit Receiving Hospital, sees Griffith’s study come to life nearly every day. “One of the things I see all the time is that [African-American males] demand a Black male doctor,” says Maddox, who has practiced medicine for 35 years. “There are only a few of us, so we can start solving this problem by encouraging more Black men to become doctors.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, Black men die seven years earlier than other demographic groups. And while life expectancy is increasing for others, it is not for Black men.

“There is the belief that it’s not macho to go to the doctor, but living and taking responsibility to be around for your family is probably the most macho thing you can do,” Griffith says.

Griffith suggests that because of the generalization that Black men don’t go the doctor, the idea has been adopted as a cultural norm. During doctor visits, men often look for proof that their negative preconceived notions will play out during appointments.

Maddox has tried to accommodate those facts into his routine for patients by indirectly informing them that he regularly goes to the doctor. “I had to realize that I’m a role model to my patients, and [I] tell them about who I am as a person before I just jump into asking what’s wrong, so they don’t leave with those negative feelings again,” says Maddox, who also has his own private practice.

Like Maddox, Griffith regularly visits his doctor and believes a healthy trusting relationship encourages patients to return and share their positive experiences with their inner circle.

Griffith is using his health disparities research to teach health care professionals about the complexities of culture in their relationships with patients. “There are some things that doctors may assume as stereotypes about patients that should be addressed and better understood,” he says.

Maddox agrees: “Even though your health is generally your responsibility, it’s our job as doctors to help in that process [of maintaining good health].”

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