The “Check Engine” Light for Men’s Health in COVID19: MENtion IT 2020

The Cleveland Clinic’s MENtion It 2020 Campaign Investigates Men’s Health During COVID and Dr. Petar Bajic Weighs In

In my mind, the Cleveland Clinic is one of the top health systems when it comes to understanding men and their attitudes towards their health. For the past five years, they have been running the MENtion It campaign. Each year, they survey roughly 1,000 men on specific topics related to men’s health. To no surprise, this year’s survey focused on the hot topic of coronavirus/COVID-19/”The Rona.”

I have had the fortune of speaking directly to some of the doctors involved in the MENtion It campaign the past two years (Dr. Modlin in 2018 and Dr. Jevnikar in 2019), and was given the chance to speak to another one this year. This year, I had a great conversation with Dr. Petar Bajic, a urologist in the Center for Men’s Health, part of the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute at Cleveland Clinic. 

As has become tradition when I talk with doctors, we delved a little into his personal background. 

A Cleveland native, Dr. Bajic completed his urology training in Chicago at Loyola University Medical Center. After that, he did a fellowship in sexual medicine and male genital reconstructive surgery at Rush University Medical Center. 

However, as a younger man, he said he was like most “college students who aren’t really that good about taking care of their health.” As he progressed through school and got more interested in medicine, he became more aware of what signs and symptoms to worry about and started taking better care of himself. 

In his words, “I think that’s not uncommon. Men’s [lack of] understanding of what things they need to look out for and how their health can be affected at various stages of their life definitely speaks to the importance of having regular care with a primary care doctor. Then [the doctors] can help with education and guidance for how men should best take care of themselves.”

As he studied more about medicine, Dr. Bajic decided to specialize in urology.

He rotated through various different specialities, but ultimately found that he got along best with urologists. He saw them as “easy going with a good sense of humor, but still took really good care of their patients and did very cutting edge surgery assisted by a lot of cool technology.” Perhaps I should become a urologist because that is essentially me in a nutshell… pun very much intended. 

Beyond developing solid relationships with his future colleagues, there was a far more impactful reason that keeps him in the field: 

“One of the things that really struck me was how devastating some of these patients’ experiences were – through the process of being diagnosed with cancer and having treatment, and how that could affect their quality of life. There’s an area within urology where we can try to get people’s quality of life back. 

That was an area that I got really excited about because step one is getting past the cancer, but then step two and beyond is getting back to a normal life. So I took it upon myself to make my mission to try to help patients like that, and that was what sent me down this path.” 

I pivoted the conversation to discuss the MENtion It 2020 campaign findings.

One focal point of this year’s campaign was the impact of COVID on mental health. Some of their findings include: 

  • 77% of men report their stress level has increased as a result of COVID-19
  • 59% have felt isolated during the pandemic 
  • 45% say their emotional/mental health has worsened during the pandemic
  • 59% feel COVID-19 has had a greater negative impact on their mental health than the 2008 recession

Despite the majority of men reporting that they have experienced major negative effects on their mental health, 66% of men also said that they rarely talk about it. I asked Dr. Bajic for his take on this maddening dichotomy. 

As I’ve found to be typical for men, he feels that men think that discussing mental health is not seen as manly, and sometimes even perceived as a sign of weakness. They may have been raised to think that it’s something they need to keep inside. 

Furthermore, men are not always in the habit of talking about their mental health. He also shared that the men in the study were more worried about the state of the economy, their family’s health, and the inability to spend time with friends and loved ones over their own health. 

Identifying a problem is only half the battle.

On a personal level, Dr. Bajic always encourages men to talk with their partners, friends, and support systems about their mental health. In his words, “increasing awareness is the first goal in getting men start mentioning their health.” He feels that a greater awareness can help men know how to be proactive and help their loved ones “ask the right questions.” Online support groups are something else he is a big advocate for.

On a larger scale, he’s noticed the recent trend in telemedicine helps with improving access to mental health care. The reasons for this are numerous – it can be done in the comfort of one’s own home, loved ones can participate, and there are less expenses for the doctor, patient, and insurance policy. The Cleveland Clinic has expanded their telemedicine capabilities, in both mental and physical health spaces.

Dr. Bajic says, “But the bottom line is you can’t keep [mental health challenges] bottled up inside because it’s not going to help you feel better. You need to talk about these things in order to get a more positive outlook on what’s going on.

The impact of COVID19 on physical health seems to be more divided.

On the negative side of things, the Cleveland Clinic found:

  • 48% of men have put off seeing a doctor for non-COVID-19 related health issues over the last few months
  • 40% say they are struggling to stay healthy
  • 24% report weight gain 

However, some men have developed better, healthier habits during this time: 

  • 45% feel healthier now than before the COVID-19 outbreak
  • 28% have started sleeping more
  • 22% have been exercising more 
  • 19% have been eating healthier 
  • 23% have been spending more time with family/friends virtually

On both sides of the coin, Dr. Bajic speculated that this was due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Men may be eating healthier since they can’t go to restaurants, but they also may be more sedentary than they are used to, leading to weight gain. 

However, he stressed the importance of following all pandemic recommendations and prioritizing our routine health care. These include yearly checks for prostate cancer in men over 55. (unless they have a family history, then they start checking in their 40s). Men over the age of 45 should be checked for colon cancer, and men over the age of 20 should have routine blood pressure checks once a year.

He wanted to make it clear that “it’s still safe to go to the hospital. We’re taking a lot of measures — checking temperatures, distributing personal protective equipment, and minimizing the amount of traffic in the hospital. And then there’s always the virtual visits that you can use. So it’s important for men to continue getting their routine health screenings.”

The final part of the MENtion It survey dealt directly with men’s attitudes towards COVID19.

The Cleveland Clinic found that 70% of men have been wearing face masks, while 30% have not been. Furthermore, younger men (18- to 34-years old) are less likely to avoid gathering in large groups as compared to older men 55 and up.

Although 64% of men don’t see an end to the COVID-19 outbreak anytime on the immediate horizon, the majority are still optimistic about the future, implying the pandemic hasn’t completely destroyed all hope. 

Dr. Bajic noted that the “positive attitude is definitely worth highlighting. Even though there’s all this uncertainty, men are still generally optimistic that we’ll get through this and that we’ll get back to a more normal life.”

As we wrapped up, I asked Dr. Bajic for his final takeaways.

He stressed the importance of men taking an active role in their health, especially if they notice “any new symptoms or problems that arise, whether it’s something that they consider serious or even things that they might not think are serious, like urinary or sexual issues.” 

“Sometimes those can be the first sign of something more serious going on, so it’s really important to get it checked out in a timely fashion. There’s some pretty solid evidence to show that new erectile dysfunction can precede a heart attack by about five years, so that’s a really important warning sign that men should be on the lookout for. Definitely get it checked out as soon as it starts or if it’s an existing problem and getting worse, come back to the doctor.”

I consider myself to be somewhat of a (self-taught) quasi-expert in men’s health, but I had no idea about the erectile dysfunction/heart attack warning or that as a man in my twenties, I should be getting my blood pressure checked every year (though I do, thanks to the dozens of follow ups I have throughout the year). 

Last year, Dr. Jevnikar wove a beautiful simile comparing caring for men’s health as taking care of a car. This year with Dr. Bajic, I joked about wishing that our bodies came with a “Check Engine” light. He laughed and mused that “some of these other symptoms that I’m talking about that [men] may not think are serious could be the ‘maintenance light’ for something more serious going on inside.”

It’s tidbits like that that truly show how the Cleveland Clinic and the MENtion It campaign continue to drive men’s health in a better direction. 

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2 Responses

  1. October 31, 2020

    […] pivot here on ABSOT and have written a lot about men’s health in relation to COVID, including the Cleveland Clinic’s survey, Dan Doty’s tips for mental health, and more. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t explicitly […]

  2. November 24, 2020

    […] speaking with Dr. Petar Bajic about the results of the Cleveland Clinic’s MENtion It campaign, we discussed that erectile […]

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