Today kicks off the first day of Men’s Health Week. For today’s Pack Chat, we sat down with Ramon Llamas of the Men’s Health Network. Ramon started his involvement in the field of Men’s Health as an intern during his Master of Public Health program. Ramon is also a Certified Health Education Specialist, and has spent many years working to help reduce gender disparities in healthcare. During Part 1 of this two part series, we’ll talk about gender disparities and the state of men’s health today.
Time to read: 4 mins
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much for sitting down and talking with us to kick off Men’s Health Week. We’re excited to provide more insight into men’s health. If you want to start and just tell me a little bit more about your background and what got you into the field, that would be a great start.
RAMON: Sure! I have a public health background. I was in between my first and second year of grad school. It was the summer around 2008, right after Obama unveiled the ACA proposal. During that summer, I was super interested in health policy and I wanted to be in DC. I went to school in California and I grew up in Southern California. I wanted to experience the city and also add an internship experience during the summer. I applied to a few different internships and I ended up taking a position with the Men’s Health Network.
INTERVIEWER: DC is a great place to be if you’re interested in health policy. How was that experience?
RAMON: The executive director of the Men’s Health Network was great to learn from. His background and experience were all in policy, advocacy, and lobbying. So, his perspective on what needed to be done, and then also how to frame messages, it really resonated and made sense with me.
The reason why I continued to be interested even beyond that internship experience was because of that lack of knowledge for the greater population around health disparities between genders. I mean, it seemed to me like a big problem to hear you almost have 50% men and 50% women but men are consistently dying younger, have higher rates of chronic disease, and have higher rates of suicide and mental health issues. All of these factors that weren’t really being talked about or weren’t a high priority.
INTERVIEWER: Interesting! Can you tell me more about the research trends and how the field has evolved?
RAMON: Sure. I think the most interesting thing is how research in men’s health has shifted. When I first discovered Men’s Health Network and learned about gender disparities, it was all about male health issues. Like prostate cancer, testicular cancer, or erectile dysfunction in men. That’s where a lot of the focus was, and it wasn’t digging into health issues that can affect anyone, but disproportionately affect men.
Then a few years into it, the research started diving into chronic disease prevention. There was more money allocated to prevention programs and finding out what works and what doesn’t work. We started researching and programming more on diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer prevention. And then, it shifted even more towards substance abuse, suicides, mental health.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any predictions for the next shift?
RAMON: I see the next frontier and I think there’s a lot of conversations in the healthcare system now and prioritization on value-based care. So, I see the next realm of research focusing on holistic wellness and prevention. I think should have been the focus a long time ago. But I think it’s worth getting to that point where our conversations are taking the approach of, “Hey, let’s talk about nutrition. Let’s talk about all these different prevention things so that we can focus on keeping you well rather than treating you after you get a chronic disease.”
INTERVIEWER: I 100% agree! Your emphasis on “the conversation” reminds me: I noticed that in several of your roles in the field men health you work in a communication capacity. How do you use this to address existing knowledge gaps surrounding men’s health?
RAMON: That’s a good question. Before I was running programs and doing communication engagement. My role now is more on business development strategy, how to get partners, and be more involved with the ecosystem for the Men’s Health Network.
In terms of communication strategy, even though there are these different groups that I’m talking to; whether it’s general public when I do presentations, or through the blog, or if it’s specific to new partners, there’s still a level of awareness and education that we need to bring to the table.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see a large awareness gap?
RAMON: When I’m giving presentations, the base foundational question to assess knowledge levels is one question, and I always start with this: “Hey, between the two genders, who lives longer?” I don’t think anybody has ever said that men outlive women. The next question I follow up with is “Why is this?” Nobody really has an answer. It’s kind of generally accepted. That’s where I start explaining why the Men’s Health Network exists. We’re trying to answer the questions of why. It’s a very complex series of issues, especially with social norms.
INTERVIEWER: Can you speak a little more to that?
RAMON: Sure. There are social factors that affect how and when decide to access care. For example, there really is no policy for men to continue doing an annual physical or anything. Whereas women have their annual, they see their gynecologist, and are made aware more consistently of that necessity. For men, you kind of just lose them until they get sick, like severely sick, and then they show up to the emergency room. From the communication standpoint, I’m highlighting the gaps that the average person may not think are much of a problem.
INTERVIEWER: Just a follow-up question with that one. You mentioned the societal norms as a complex series of issues as well as policy. What is your perspective on why men aren’t seeking out care?
RAMON: I think it’s both awareness and a combination of societal norms and gender stereotypes. All these various issues together make it even more of a barrier to change health behaviors. Personally, I think men don’t prioritize their health as much as we could. I think that stems from education and priority levels. I think we’ve always been taught to focus on jobs and being able to provide for family, so health tends to take a back burner.
Also, this pressure of being masculine and being in control has a huge impact. I think having conversations with physicians puts you in a position of vulnerability and almost a loss of control because you don’t always know what’s happening.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a really good point. I think the concept of masculinity is so interesting in the healthcare realm just because we don’t always think about a doctor’s as place of vulnerability. If you’re there and you’re unsure of what’s wrong, it can be extremely stressful.
RAMON: I think we have been so bombarded with all these images of masculinity. For example, think from a nutritional standpoint, it’s like, “Hey, why are you only eating a salad right now? You should be eating steak.” In order to shift these ideologies, you have to have so much self-awareness about who you are. It can be really difficult to challenge that status quo individually.
Stay tuned for Part II of Ramon Llamas #PackChat series next week! We’ll be talking more about how to engage men in the healthcare sphere, successful ways that Ramon has developed programming for men, and innovative strategies to bring more awareness to gender disparities. To get this Pack Chat sent directly to your inbox, fill out the “Learn More” form. For more information on the Men’s Health Network, visit their website.