by Maria LaPiana
May 20, 2013
07:54 AMWell, Now
Men's Health: The Connecticut Man Up Program
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo and his son, Jordan Lembo-Frey, 13, bike for the Man Up campaign for men’s health.
In the course of doing his job last year, Kevin Lembo, the Connecticut state comptroller, was reviewing the health data of 200,000 state employees when he took note of a surprising difference between men and women. “It was clear that women were using health care differently,” he says. “The records showed they were having more routine screenings and seeing their primary doctors more often.”
The disparity prompted Lembo to dig deeper.
To his dismay, he learned that Connecticut’s numbers reflected a national trend: that U.S. women are twice as likely to go for preventive screenings than men are. Further, they live an average of six years longer than men, who die of chronic diseases at higher rates than women overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This longevity gap gave Lembo pause, so he took action. “Because there was nothing genetically different to explain this, I started thinking that men really needed to take responsibility for their health,” he says. To find out why the numbers were so skewed, he launched an education-and-outreach campaign in November, giving it the catchy name: “Man Up.”
Its message, he says, is simple. “[Men] can’t be the best fathers, brothers and sons to our families if we get sick from preventable diseases.”
A roundtable of experts was convened in January to discuss the matter and identify the reasons men were not seeing doctors more often—was it fear, mistrust, cultural bias or something else? “Our purpose was to bring together people from different perspectives to talk,” says Lembo. These included patients, medical doctors and representatives of the insurance industry. He believed if they could get to the cause, they could chip away at the problem.
Roundtable member Dr. John Harper, senior medical director of ConnectiCare health plans, says the situation is serious. “Nationally and in Connecticut, men fare poorer than women in many health outcome measurements,” he says. “Men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and binge drinking, and they have a higher incidence of serious medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
Why don’t they get checked out? Minor aches and pains are often shrugged off, and even serious symptoms are sometimes ignored because men don’t like to complain or appear weak. Lembo says it’s a macho thing: “We are taught from an early age to ‘walk it off.’”
There are additional challenges facing African-American men and other minorities, explains Frank Harris III, who served on the Man Up roundtable. “The disease statistics are higher in many cases for black men, and there are many reasons for that, including heredity and poverty,” says Harris, who is a Hartford Courant columnist and chairman of the journalism department at Southern Connecticut State University. “A high percentage of blacks don’t have health care or see doctors on a regular basis; sometimes it’s simply because they can’t take the time off work.”
A 2001 study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that many African-American men simply don’t trust the health care system, a theory that Harris supports: “It’s historical, and it goes back to slavery, when there was little concern for the health of blacks,” he says.
The Man Up campaign aims to address these challenges and reach out to men wherever they’ll take the message to heart. “Whether in PSAs, on a billboard, or through outreach in black churches, we need to get the word out that it’s okay to go the doctor,” says Harris.
Lembo agrees. “It’s pretty clear we need to raise awareness, through a regular campaign of information,” he says. “But we can’t be preachy; we have to be more entertaining.”
To that end, the campaign offered Wii challenges and free health screenings and disseminated information at a “Men’s Health Tailgating Challenge” at a UConn football game last November. Last month, Man Up sponsored a similar event at the Third Annual Rising Pint Brewfest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Against the backdrop of live music and beer from nearly 60 participating breweries, men were reminded to take responsibility for their health.
Likening health care to car maintenance, Man Up has published a brochure outlining the frequency of physical exams, vision tests, dental visits and cholesterol screenings as recommended by federal guidelines for men at different stages of their lives.
The campaign doesn’t underestimate the role of a woman in helping to get a man’s health back on track. “Wives, mothers, daughters and sisters do have a role in improving the health of Connecticut men,” says ConnectiCare’s Harper. “Women tend to make the medical decisions for the house. Since men are often reluctant to schedule doctor visits, family members can certainly provide positive encouragement for men to schedule routine checkups and health screenings.”
That can make a real difference since a man who sees his doctor regularly is more likely to be screened—and treated for—diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease, prostate and colorectal cancer) that require early intervention for the most positive outcomes.
Sometimes all it takes is getting someone’s attention. ConnectiCare sends health communications targeted to men over the age of 50 who have not had a recent physical. Harper says that as a result, the percentage of ConnectiCare-insured men who are now receiving routine preventive care has increased.
While it would be great to see all Connecticut men live longer, Lembo is realistic: “We’re trying to get men to do one or two things to make a change: Go to the gym, skip the second dessert.”
As a father, he’s made this a personal mission, too. “When folks ask why I’m doing this, I say our sons are watching and listening,” says Lembo, who believes it’s important to model good behavior for his own son, Jordan, who at 13, just started running. “As for me, I have a birthday coming up in September. I’m turning 50.” Allowing that this milestone is a pretty big deal, Lembo adds, “I’m training for a 5K. I guess you could say I’m trying to get my own house in order.”
For more information on the Man Up campaign, visit osc.ct.gov/manup.