Quarter of people delay visiting GP out of embarrassment, survey suggests

By Erin Santillo

One in four people in the UK have delayed visiting their GP over something they consider to be embarrassing, new research suggests.

A survey of 2,250 people by health company Essity found that 26% had put off a medical check, equating to 13.8 million Brits.

More than a fifth (21%) reported having delayed booking an appointment, only later to be diagnosed with a health condition.

The majority (52%) said they had received mixed messages as to whether or not they should visit a GP for certain symptoms.

It comes as the new head of NHS England, Amanda Pritchard, urged anyone concerned about a medical problem to come forward for checks as part of the health service's "Help Us, Help You" campaign.

Thousands are thought to have delayed seeking help for potential cancer symptoms, in part due to fears of overburdening the NHS amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Embarrassment is another "concerning barrier" to people accessing support, Essity said, with 44% saying loss of bladder or bowel control would be the "most embarrassing thing" to have to tell their partner, friend or family – more so than mental health challenges (20%) and debt (21%).

Younger people aged 18 – 34 were found to be most likely to delay speaking to a doctor about a seemingly embarrassing symptom (39%), compared to those aged 35 – 54 (27%) and those over 55 (18%).

Women were found to be more likely to delay accessing medical support out of embarrassment (31%) than men (22%).

In attempts to avoid speaking with medical experts about their symptoms, 45% said they "often" self-diagnose whether symptoms are serious or not based on online advice, with nearly half then opting not to speak with their GP.

This was especially the case with younger people, with those aged 18 – 34 three times more likely (38%) than those over 55 (12%) to avoid speaking to a doctor about bathroom-related concerns and search for their symptoms online instead.

If respondents were to experience a bathroom-related symptom for over a week, 28% said they would most likely speak to their GP over the phone, 21% would Google their symptoms, 20% would seek information from the NHS website, and 9% would call 111.

Essity is urging people to "check for change" on their bodies and seek advice at the earliest opportunity if they notice a difference, no matter how seemingly embarrassing.

Jane Mayes, the company's clinical consultant said: “Our research has found that the embarrassment we can often feel around our toilet habits is leading to potentially concerning symptoms going unnoticed, left or medical support not being accessed when it should be.

"Too often, we’re more comfortable talking about the urine and stool of our children or pets, but consider our own health too taboo to discuss.

"Equally, we’re seeing an increase in the number of people – particularly younger people – who are deciding whether or not to speak to their GP based on information they can find online.”

NHS doctor Emily MacDonagh said: "Looking at the research, it’s clear that there is a big issue with people feeling embarrassed about speaking to a doctor about their bodies – particularly when it comes to bathroom-related issues.

"Essity’s Check for Change campaign is something I feel passionate about: reassuring people that they do not need to be embarrassed about anything to do with their health can help us catch issues early.

"That is what medical professionals are here for and it is important that awareness is raised to help remove the stigma that is currently attached to ‘embarrassing’ problems.

"I would encourage everyone to check for change, to know their own bodies, and to seek advice at the earliest opportunity if they are concerned about health-related matters – ‘embarrassing’ or not, the NHS is here to help!”

Essity surveyed 2,250 people via Opinium between July 30 and August 6 2021.

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