01/03/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Of Mobile Apps, Movements and Men: Improving Men's Health

A certain stereotype probably comes to mind when you think of men's health. Maybe you imagine a "tough guy" type who hasn't seen a doctor since he was first discharged from the nursery. He definitely doesn't get regular checkups or routine screenings. And when he finally does go to the doctor, he promptly ignores everything the physician tells him. Often he dies young from something that could have been caught earlier and prevented, and everyone is heartbroken.

Does this sound all too familiar? Here is the bad news: The stereotype is essentially true. Men tend to be terrible at maintaining their health.

In 2010, for instance, only 57 percent of men (as opposed to 74 percent of women) had any routine medical care. And while there has been plenty of controversy lately over whether annual physicals are in fact a good idea, something tells me that's not why guys are lagging behind.

Another study in 2009 found that "macho" men are in especially bad shape. The researchers concluded that guys who were devoted to "traditional beliefs about masculinity" were a whopping 50 percent less likely than other men to get routine health care.

Study after study has found that men are more likely than women to procrastinate and lapse in their preventive care. They are more likely to ignore symptoms, and they are hospitalized more frequently with preventable illnesses. And, of course, they die younger than women, often of those same preventable illnesses.

Stay with me, because there is good news. The good news is that we have a pretty good idea why men lag behind where health behaviors are concerned -- and we are better equipped than ever to help shift those behaviors. So what are the main obstacles to men's health care, and how are we working to overcome them?

In a survey of men who don't see a doctor regularly (conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians), more than half said they don't go to the doctor unless they are sick -- or "extremely sick!" Meanwhile, official medical bodies recommend that even healthy young men get a number of routine screenings to catch problems before they are serious.

Let's call this an awareness issue. Health care isn't just for sick people, and we need to make sure men know that. Fortunately, organizations like Movember and Men's Health Network have worked to stimulate conversation around men's preventive health and the need for checkups and screenings. (Movember especially has done this in a fun, approachable way.)

Another 16 percent of the surveyed men said they don't go to the doctor because they don't have time or don't know a good doctor in their area. In other words, there is an access issue. And I'm convinced that technology, like the slew of new mobile health apps, is making it easier to find a doctor and see them on short notice.

It's well-documented that men are generally early adopters of technology, and health technology is no exception. According to 2012 research by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, men are on trend with the 31 percent of cell phone owners and 52 percent of smartphone owners who have used their phone to look up health or medical information.

This is the right direction for us to go in. To meaningfully engage men, we need to make it simple for them (and everyone else, of course) to get health care. There's no better way to do that than to deliver health information in an organic way that men are clearly fond of -- through their gadgets.

The third obstacle is a political and economic one: Approximately one in eight of the surveyed men said they don't go to the doctor because they don't have health insurance. That's no surprise, given that 25 million men were uninsured in 2011, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But in this area, of course, the big picture is changing rapidly. However you feel about the Affordable Care Act, it will likely lead to insurance coverage for millions of additional men over the coming years. That means "because I don't have insurance" will hopefully become a much less-cited reason for men's avoidance of doctors.

We are already seeing the impact of these trends at my company and beyond. For example, both men and women have joined our service at an accelerating rate over the last few years. New patient signups among both women and men are up about 900 percent since 2010, and women and men who book annual physicals via our service are increasing at an equally rapid clip -- about 650 percent since 2010. What does this mean? It means that men lag behind in traditional health care, but they are keeping right up with women in the online health care space.

Clearly, the convenience obstacle to men's health care can be mitigated (at least!) by technology improvements. Organizations that work on education and awareness are seeing similar explosive growth. Movember, for instance, reports a spike in global participation that has nearly doubled since 2010.

Of course, improving men's health will mean working on many fronts: to help men understand their risk factors, get the appropriate screenings, and embrace technologies that heighten their commitment to great health care.

These recent developments are only a start, but they are a promising one. Here's to a healthy 2013 for all of the men out there... and their friends and families who love them.

For more by Oliver Kharraz, M.D., click here.

For more on men's health, click here.