Why you might be avoiding the doctor...

Are you ignoring your health?

Most of us know our own body and when we feel under par, but could our excuses for not getting health concerns checked out, really be down to fear?

According to a new report, thousands of us in the UK are putting our health at risk - exposing ourselves to life-threatening diseases and other conditions - because we’re too afraid to visit our GP. Rather than discover what they might find and have to face what’s wrong, we opt instead not to go, and in some cases even ignore symptoms. 

Former health secretary Alan Milburn is part of a campaign to tackle this common problem of patients avoiding doctors for 'fear of finding out' they are seriously ill.

Fear of finding out

While we usually think of ‘knowledge as power’, authors of the ‘fear of finding out’ (FOFO) study, have discovered a large number of people feel ‘disempowered’ by finding out more about their health. And fears around getting a diagnosis or undergoing tests, was putting their health at risk, possibly leading to premature deaths.

This has huge implications for health as medical professionals agree preventative medicine, and catching disease in its early stages, not only affects the quality of daily life, but also significantly improves your chance of a good outcome. 

Driving the initiative to change attitudes, alongside Alan Milburn, are Professor Sir Muir Gray, founder of the National Library for Health and the first person to hold the post of chief knowledge officer of the NHS, and Dr Zoe Williams, a GP and an RCGP clinical champion for physical activity and lifestyle.

The 'Fear of Finding Out: Identifying Psychological Barriers to Diagnosis in the UK' report is based on information from data, observations and discussions. It can be read online.

What do you fear the most?   

There are a numerous reasons why so many of us are choosing to ignore something as important as our health. However, there seems to be two main camps where fear seems to get the better of us.

  1. The majority fear ‘what the doctor might find’. Being particularly worried on what the outcome might be of discovering what’s behind the symptoms and the potential disease.
  2. The other group can’t face a clinical environment or having to undergo exploratory investigations such as, being invited for health screenings, checks and tests.

The things people were most afraid of involved a fear of:

  • being physically examined
  • the hospital environment
  • clinical investigations
  • treatment
  • stigma and/or discrimination
  • being pressured to make lifestyle changes
  • appearing weak / not in control
  • sexual dysfunction post treatment

Who is most likely to avoid health issues?

You might think it would be older people who would be inclined to avoid facing up to fears about their health. But no. A significant number of this group appears to be in middle age.

Research by the Kings Fund suggests that while 40% of the UK population are highly motivated to adopt healthy lifestyles, the remaining 60% have a more negative and fatalistic attitude towards their health

As well as affecting those in middle age, the ‘Fear of Finding Out’ is also more likely to affect those who have:

  • An unhealthy lifestyle and are either: smokers, heavy drinkers
  • have an unhealthy diet and/or are obese

What are the implications for delaying health matters?

Studies show that delaying getting health worries checked out worsens the prognosis for a number of life-threatening conditions, especially in areas such as, mental health, heart attack, stroke, many cancers, arthritis, diabetes and infectious diseases.

And while this is essentially bad news for the individual involved, neglecting your own health can have wider implications for the health of others. A review of one study found that anywhere from 12% to 55% of people who undergo testing for HIV fail to return to learn whether they are infected.

The authors of the report also concluded that avoidance of test results may be partly to blame for the high number of people who fail to turn up for outpatient appointments at hospitals. 

Take responsibility for your own health

Although more research needs to be done in this area, the campaign, which forms part of bio-pharmaceutical company AbbVie’s Live:Lab project, and will also see input from Aardman (creators of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, highlights the need for doctors and nurses to be more proactive in educating and supporting patients in overcoming their fears surrounding their health.

What does health screening involve?

  • discussion of your family medical history
  • a full examination
  • urine tests
  • ECG to measure your heartbeat
  • blood tests 

A plan for healthy living is then drawn up between you and your doctor, and further tests may be offered, which focus on the most common conditions.

Targeted health screening

It may be that you feel you have early symptoms of a condition, or worry that you are at risk of developing it due to a family history or lifestyle. If this is the case, your GP can offer tests that act as markers for specific conditions.

Such as for ovarian and breast cancers, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), as well as bone density imaging (DEXA), to name a few.

Our GPs can also offer

  • Additional treatment
  • Admission to a private hospital
  • Referrals to the best consultants in the UK
  • A follow up call free of charge for 24 hours following the GP’s visit
  • Continuity of care from Harley Street.


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