It’s Movember, and while we may laugh at some of the moustaches sported by the men around us, men’s health is no laughing matter. Movember, and the pursuit of the hirsute, started in Australia as a month-long exercise to raise awareness of prostate cancer and depression in men. “Mo” is Australian slang for moustache, and elided with “November”, the result is “Movember”. Now Movember is a global movement run by the Movember Foundation and operated under licence in South Africa by The Men’s Foundation of South Africa.
While the Movember Foundation now focuses on men’s health more broadly, and mental health as an important component of that, there is still a strong emphasis on screening for prostate and testicular cancer, and on the need to talk about uncomfortable health issues rather than keeping quiet out of embarrassment, in the interests of saving lives. These and other screening tests, both gender-specific and universal, are critical elements of a healthy lifestyle for individuals and a wellness culture for organisations.
What is screening?
Screening tests are not the same as diagnostic tests. If you are ill and the doctor needs to investigate the cause of your symptoms, you will be offered a diagnostic test to find out what is wrong. Screening tests are done on healthy people – or at least on those with no apparent symptoms. The aim of screening is early disease detection, usually before any symptoms are present.
Timely detection enables the disease to be identified and treated at an early stage, which may have the effect of arresting the disease before it can progress to a more serious phase. In many cases screening for some cancers can be life-saving, but it’s important to note that early detection can’t always prevent disease progression. It’s also worth remembering that screening is not the same as prevention, though you may see the term “preventative disease screening”. Screening tests look for early signs of disease; they do not prevent it. Screening techniques can provide a degree of prevention if they detect abnormal changes that are currently innocent but could later develop into a disease. Examples are pap-smears and endoscopy of the bowel. These tests allow irregularities (cervical cells, intestinal polyps) to be removed before developing into cancerous cells.
Some screening tests don’t look for a disease but rather seek to detect genetic risk factors for certain diseases. These tests may be offered to couples planning to conceive.
Screening for conditions such as diabetes and hypertension and their risk factors is becoming more widespread, as these non-communicable “lifestyle” diseases overtake traditional communicable diseases as leading causes of death.
Like everything in life, the benefits of screening have to be weighed against the risks. No medical procedure is entirely risk-free, though many common screening tests are minimally invasive. Blood sugar and cholesterol levels can be determined by drawing a small amount of blood from the finger. Pap smears and prostate exams involve intimate examination but do not carry high risk of complications. Other procedures carry slightly higher risks, for example, x-ray examinations expose the body to radiation and endoscopy of the bowel can lead to bleeding. Therefore these types of screening tests are usually only done where there is an above-average risk of abnormality. They are not offered at a population level.
A drawback of screening, in particular for certain cancers, is that some people may have treatment they do not need; i.e. the disease itself may never actually develop. This is because many abnormal changes do not always become a more serious condition, and some go back to normal without any medical intervention, never causing any health problems. Some experts believe that screening can cause unnecessary distress and unpleasant side effects from therapy that was never needed. Others feel the risk is worth taking to be sure of treating a disease that could be life-threatening. You must decide for yourself. Most people opt for the reassurance of screening.
Types of tests available
The most common screening tests available in South Africa are:
• Blood glucose
• Blood pressure
• Body mass index
• HIV screening
• Mammogram (to check for breast cancer)
• Pap-smear (to check for cervical cancer)
• PSA test (to check for prostate cancer)
Other screenings include:
• Diabetic eye test (only for diagnosed diabetics)
• Bowel cancer screening
• Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening
• Various screenings during pregnancy and for newborns
If you are a member of a medical scheme, it is likely that you have cover for screening and preventative tests, usually through a variety of wellness providers, for example Clicks and Dischem. Cover usually extends to screening offered at corporate wellness days.
Benefits to employers of providing screening for employees
It’s in employers’ interests to encourage employees to undergo health screening. It demonstrates a commitment to the health and wellbeing of staff and helps to build a picture of the health of the organisation through aggregate (and anonymous) reports. If health conditions – both chronic and acute – can be identified early and treatment started before one’s health starts to deteriorate, employees are likely to take less time off work, be more productive and enjoy a better quality of life. Everybody wins.
Furthermore, it’s in everyone’s interests to provide screening services in the workplace, usually through corporate wellness days. Not only does it make it easier for employees to access screening, and remove the need to take time off work for a clinic or GP visit, it sends a clear message to staff that they (and their health) are valued and the company is prepared to set work time aside for this important health initiative.
When employees feel valued, engagement increases and productivity goes up.
Your wellness programme
EOH Human Capital Solutions can help you design a wellness programme for your organisation. Through our sister company, EOH Health, we can provide onsite clinical services and a range of Workplace Health and Wellness services, including Executive Wellness. Contact us on 012 940 6300 for more information.