Objectives: Because women consult their general practitioners more frequently on average than men, it is commonly assumed that they consult more for all symptoms and conditions. This assumption is reinforced by qualitative studies reporting a widespread reluctance to consult by men. However, few studies directly compare consultation in men and women experiencing similar symptoms or conditions.
Methods: A systematic review of the evidence on gender and consultation for two common symptoms, back pain and headache. Extensive electronic searches identified 15 papers reporting the relationship between gender and help-seeking for back pain and 11 papers for headache. Two independent reviewers assessed articles for inclusion and extracted data from eligible studies.
Results: Few studies compared consultation patterns for these symptoms among men and women known to have experienced the symptom. The quality of the studies was variable. Overall, evidence for greater consultation by women with back pain was weak and inconsistent. Among those with back pain, the odds ratios for women seeking help, compared with men, ranged from 0.6 (95% confidence intervals 0.3, 1.2, adjusted only for age) to 2.17 (95% confidence intervals 1.35, 3.57, unadjusted), although none of the reported odds ratio, below 1.00 was statistically significant. The evidence for women being more likely to consult for headache was a little stronger. Five studies showed a statistically elevated odds ratio, and none suggested that men with headache symptoms were more likely to consult than women with headache symptoms. Limitations to the studies are discussed.
Conclusion: Given the strength of assumptions that women consult more readily for common symptoms, the evidence for greater consultation amongst women for two common symptoms, headache and back pain, was surprisingly weak and inconsistent, especially with respect to back pain.