My role


MHF: the Drew Barrymore of health 

Charlotte Church 'wrote' an autobiography at 14, Drew Barrymore at 15 and Wayne Rooney at 19. The MHF has commissioned something similar to mark its fifteenth birthday. Jim Pollard offers a personal take on the childhood of this disturbingly sensible adolescent (the MHF, not Drew Barrymore).


The MHF is fifteen years old this year. A spotty teenager, slouching and taciturn save for the odd indecipherable grunt? The Forum's first short history is being written and talking to the author the other day got me thinking about how much has changed.

toddler as surgeonWhen we were a toddler, the Forum used to make the news. In fact, our president Ian Banks was quoted so often in the press that other organisations assumed we had an army of press officers when in fact we had barely any paid staff. Screaming kids get noticed.

We punched well above our weight because, oddly enough, health is traditionally one of the few subjects in the media that is female-led. But in the 90s, smarter journalists and editors looking for a new angle realised that their health coverage was neglecting 50% of the population. Suddenly, men were the new women. We even got our own magazines — GQ, Maxim, Men's Health.

Now we're no longer the bonny baby, our concerns are no longer a new angle. We're old hat. We're mainstream. But that's OK. We want to be mainstream. We want gender to be mainstreamed when it comes to health — as automatic as blinking. In an ideal world it wouldn't be any more newsworthy than the rising of the sun.

'It's not fair!!!!'

As a child, all the MHF was interested in was getting its voice heard, getting our issue on the agenda. What about us? What about men's health? It's not fair. We did that well. It got the policy makers to listen and a smart incoming Labour government got the message.

Indeed, after the massive disappointments with the Labour government in economic and foreign policy — a pretty large part of the government's agenda, it has to be admitted — it is easy to forget how much has been achieved elsewhere. Suddenly a door that had been firmly locked was open. And, given the strength of the MHF's arguments underpinned by the disaggregated gender-sensitive health statistics generated by Alan White (then soon to be the world's first professor of men's health), a new (and New) Labour government schooled in race, sex and class could hardly deny that here was a serious equalities issue.

The dialogue changed. It got more sophisticated. Like any child we discovered the subjects we were interested in and had to make some choices. Gender was complex. So was health care and health messaging. How do gender and health interweave with race and class and disability? The media have never really done race and class as equality issues. They may occasionally report on — or even exhibit — some knee-jerk racism but that's about as far as it goes.

But no worries if they aren't interested. The government apparently is and with the gender equality duty and other developments it has made progress that we shouldn't turn our noses up at. And I'm not just saying that because the Forum is now an official startegic partner of the Department of Health.

Typical of today's teens

Yes, one striking thing about the teenage MHF is how damned sensible it is. (Typical of today's teens, snort the baby-boomers.) This has put clear blue water between us and the more juvenile men only pressure groups — the ones that froth at the mouth and blame wimmin for everything from their own unemployment to the loss of the empire while climbing on stately homes with their pants outside their trousers. We don't share their thesis about what's wrong or need to resort to their tactics.

Men's health is the perfect example of the complexity of the equalities agenda. Yes, in most areas of life notably the workplace, education and child-care women have been disadvantaged. In health it is the other way round.

We don't think women are the problem. In fact, some of our best friends are women. (Just as well since every minister responsible for men's health under the Labour government has been a woman.) We think the system is the problem. It doesn't understand us. It's too rigid.

True, despite our sensible shoes and haircut, some of the kids we'd like to be our friends still avoid us in the playground. Some potential partners — mainly in the private rather than public sector - are still reluctant to ally with an organisation that promotes a male agenda as they think this is by definition anti-women. They don't really get equality.

Equality of opportunity or outcome?

So now, in our new strategic partners, the Department of Health, has the young MHF discovered the equivalent of a genuinely sympathetic adult in authority who can understand what we're saying and help change things?

Do they share our understanding of equalities? Are we talking about equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? The government doesn't much like to get into this. Alan Milburn's commission on social mobility may, amusingly, have annoyed a few nutters who don't believe in equal access to education but it was a largely timid affair and, indeed, the fudging of the outcome/opportunity debate is responsible in part for the problems we've seen recently at the top of Commission for Equalities and Human Rights.

When it comes to jobs, genuine equality of opportunity may well result in equal outcomes — roughly gender-equal boardrooms, judicial and parliamentary benches and senior common rooms. But this is not the case with health. When it comes to health care, there are some equality of opportunity issues. You could argue that there is, in the health service, both direct discrimination — men and women presenting with the same conditions are treated differently — and indirect discrimination — it's harder for working people to access health services and since men are more likely to work they're most affected. But what we're really talking about is equality of outcome.

In the UK, men in the most deprived areas of Glasgow have a life expectancy of 54. This is 8 years less than the average life expectancy for men in India and 28 years less than that of men in the more affluent areas of the same city. Equalising the health of a society in which male life expectancy in the same city can vary by nearly three decades will not be achieved simply by instructing GPs to open their surgeries at more sensible hours — important though that clearly is.

So the Forum may have come a long way but we're still only a teenager with potential. We still haven't fulfilled it. Will we get the chance or will it be cruelly snatched away as the unintended consequence of a change of government policy? To squeeze the juice out of the analogy that has run through this article one last time, will the next election turn out to be, for the teenage MHF, the equivalent in socially immobile, slump Britain of your dad losing his job and you no longer being able to take up your university place?


  • Jim Pollard is editor of the Forum's website and has been involved with the organisation since the 1990s.
  • The MHF's short autobiography will be published later this year.

Page created on September 1st, 2009

Page updated on December 1st, 2009