Men are so terrified of hospitals they become helpless - and deny being ill. John Crace reports
"You would think that it was the women who were going to be admitted," says Pete Thomas, charge nurse on the urology ward at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. "They carry all the documentation and answer all the questions. Even the younger men keep quiet while their girlfriends make sure we understand exactly what the problem is. And when they open the overnight bag, you just know it's the woman who has bought and packed the new pyjamas."

Passivity has long been recognised as a feature of men's attitude towards their health. While nine out of 10 women regularly check their breasts for lumps, only one out of 10 men bothers to check his testicles. Small wonder, then, that men are four times less likely than women to consult a doctor but are more likely to have an emergency admission to hospital with a serious illness. "Ignorance is bliss," says Lauren Gray, a staff nurse. "Men often find a lump, assume it's the Big C, and go into denial. They reason that as long as they don't go to a doctor they can't be told they've got cancer."

Take Barrie Lewis, a 50-year-old benefits agency worker who has been terrified of being admitted to hospital ever since he was confined to a polio isolation ward as a child in the Fifties. Over the past 10 years, he found himself needing to go to the toilet with ever-increasing frequency. At first, it was only three or four times each night, but by the beginning of last year it was up to nine or 10. Not once did he think of going to the doctor. "I just blanked it out and assumed it was part of the ageing process," he says.

By last summer he was also getting abdominal pain and his wife, Sandra, took him to the doctor. Mr Lewis was immediately referred to a specialist who recommended a cystoscopy - not that Mr Lewis was aware what his treatment was to be. "He couldn't remember a word that had been said to him when he left the consulting room, and the first I heard of him needing an operation was when I phoned the hospital a few weeks later to find out what was going to happen next," says Mrs Lewis. Once in hospital, Mr Lewis submitted to the system. "I didn't question what was being done to me. I just lay back and prayed for it all to be over." Mr Lewis was lucky; the cystoscopy revealed no life-threatening condition.

Mr Lewis's hospital phobia may be more severe than most, but it is not uncommon. "Women talk to each other about their bodies, and so they know what's normal and what isn't and what they can expect to happen to them in hospital," says Ms Gray. "Men find it far harder to talk, especially if there is something wrong with their genitals, and so they are understandably more uptight when they are admitted."

Gerald Collins, aged 50, has no fear of hospitals, having been in and out of them ever since he was two, and has just had a penile prosthesis to help with his impotence. He feels that the medical profession must take some responsibility for men's apparent lack of interest in their bodies. "Some doctors just want to get through their lists as quickly as possible. They know that men aren't going to ask too many questions, so they don't take the time to explain exactly what's going on. I only discovered that my erection problems could be a side-effect of my diabetes when I chatted to someone on a helpline."

Both men and women go into "sick mode" when they walk through the hospital door - to the extent of getting undressed and lying in bed before they have even had their operations - but once there, women tend to take a more active interest both in their health and their appearance. "Women are far more demanding patients; they treat nurses as equals and if they've got a pain, they'll make sure you know about it. Men often think they've got to be macho and grin and bear it," says Mr Thomas. "Women also look after themselves more. Even when I was on an early shift they would make sure that their hair was brushed, their teeth were in and their make-up was done before I appeared. Men just slob around."

Lauren Gray confirms this. "Men don't see me as a woman, they see me as a person doing a job. They will stand around with nothing on, chatting to each other at the end of the ward; occasionally, it all gets a bit much and I just have to say, 'Put it away.' And they do. Men expect hospital to be hierarchical and to be told what to do. When we tell them to do what they want, they can't really handle it."

For all their docility in the face of adversity, Mr Thomas senses that men are slowly becoming more informed about their health. "We get a lot more men asking about their prostate than before," he says. One thing has not changed, though. Mr Lewis has to go back to hospital for another operation this spring. Does he know what it is for and when it will be? Does he hell.

'Men's Ward' will be shown on BBC2 at 8.30pm on Tuesday 27 February