Men's Telehealth Startups Do Little To Eradicate Taboo

By Bailey Hosfelt

Credit: @hims on Instagram

Credit: @hims on Instagram

If you live in New York City and are a frequent patron of the finicky excuse we call for public transportation, you’re likely no stranger to subway ad fads.

There was StreetEasy going off nothing but stereotypes and the Museum of Sex marketing on, well, sex. Thinx publicly announcing that not only women menstruate and Postmates promoting restaurant-to-door delivery with lipstick-stained mouths taking dad bites out of burgers.

But recently, I noticed some new ad campaigns, and couldn’t seem to look away. Where past images got me to stop for a second and think about the specific product or place advertised, these ones have left a lasting impression – so much so that questions lingered well after I got off my stop and the content was out of sight.

I’ve brought them up at dinner with friends and asked the under-30 crowd at work if they’ve seen them.

Because I need to know: what’s up with all these erectile dysfunction startups?

It began with a cactus. And then a few eggplants. Followed by the oysters.

Credit: @hims on Instagram

Credit: @hims on Instagram

Hims, the posters read. The images were phallic. Plus, there were pills. It didn’t take much to put the two together.

Around the same time, Grand Central’s subway station practically looked as if it was sponsored by another company of the same vein – his name, Roman.

These ads were bright red and told it to you (or me) straight: “erectile dysfunction meds prescribed online, delivered to your door.”

Well that’s a blatant proclamation of a discreet service, I thought to myself.

Credit: @getroman on Instagram

Credit: @getroman on Instagram

My knee jerk response should have been good for them. But, like an aftershock, there was a tiny rumble of disruption brewing in my mind.

You may be wondering why I, a cisgender woman, was so taken aback by ads targeted to aid the ailing male anatomy, which I do not possess.

Freud would probably call penis envy, but I decided to put what every heteronormative high school psychology teacher said aside and take an investigative approach.

I wanted to know exactly why these telehealth companies marketing men’s health fixes made me skeptical in the first place.

So I went straight to the source.

According to Roman’s “How It Works” page, the process is fairly simple. You do an online onboarding process that consists of your medical history and symptoms. You input your blood pressure and answer a bunch of questions. Then, you take a photo and show ID to verify you aren’t a robot. Within two hours, a licensed physician who has never met you will write your prescription should it be “safe and appropriate.” And badda bing, badda boom. The Roman Pharmacy Network ships the product to your place.

Hims is similar. You click the “Get the Goods” tab to setup your monthly prescription plan. After passing the paywall, you undergo a similar online visit where the doctor will see you now (inside your phone screen).

This sounded easy to me. Perhaps too easy. So that’s when I decided to see if I could get prescribed erectile dysfunction meds online.

To reiterate, I don’t have a penis nor do I intimately understand the logistics of an erection, but I passed the 33-question medical history and symptoms survey on Roman’s site with flying colors. I Googled what a healthy male blood pressure was and entered that. Had I added credit card information, the pills would have been all mine.

Hims, like previously mentioned, does the process the other way around. You put in your card information first and fill out the medical portion second. So, I did what seemed appropriate for my investigation: I put in my card information. Thirty-five dollars came out of my checking account, and I now my money is tied up in erectile dysfunction meds. Don’t worry, I requested a refund.


Photo Credit: Bailey Hosfelt

Photo Credit: Bailey Hosfelt

But by this point, I had enough information, and my findings proved what I suspected: answer the questions correctly, and you can get ED meds extremely easily. I mean, all of this only took 15 minutes out of my lunch break.

Great, some may think. Internet pharmacies are the future and erectile dysfunction is an embarrassing, taboo topic for men to talk about.

While erectile dysfunction is a real medical condition that inflicts men young and old and I commend these companies’ rebranding Renaissance from the grey-haired, linen-wearing 60-year-olds acting in Viagra commercials, the ease with which a male can access something to help him get it up must give us some pause.

In a time when women’s bodies and reproductive rights continue to be controlled by politicians and Roe v. Wade could erode right before our eyes, it is hard to grapple with the idea that we’re making it easier for men to get hard and harder to deal with the potential consequences of that same erection – most of which fall on women’s shoulders.

Although the United Nations declared access to contraception a “basic human right” in 2012, Trump-era politics are making women’s access to birth control and reproductive care an uphill battle.

The fact that erectile dysfunction medicine can be delivered to a man’s door while I still have to spend hours on hold waiting for my insurance to approve an IUD despite already having a live, in-person doctor explain the health risks, perform a physical and internal exam, and run numerous tests before giving me the go-ahead, frankly feels like a slap in the face.

A major appeal of Roman and Hims is that the patients can circumnavigate a traditional conversation with a doctor and instead opt for telemedicine. In an interview for CNN Money, Zachariah Reitano calls erectile dysfunction a “highly undertreated condition.”

Reitano then articulates how it’s not only difficult to bring up the subject with a physician in person but it’s even more difficult to ask consecutive questions about it.

The fact that only 60 percent of men go to the doctor annually and a measly 12 percent would turn to a doctor first in the case of a health issue, as reported by the Cleveland Clinic’s 2016 MENtion It survey results, does speak to a larger problem within our society. But creating an alternative way for men to speak about health – one in which they do not actually have to speak about their health – is not an authentic or successful step forward.

It’s only exacerbating a pre-existing issue, wherein this generation of men turn to their phone just as their fathers and grandfathers turned a blind eye.

Reitano says in the video that his company strongly recommends that each person get a blood test before the process is started to detect underlying conditions. However, that’s a recommendation, not a requirement. Some men, just like I did, will opt out and Google the healthy blood pressure for an adult male.

Misdiagnosis and abuse can and will occur. If I could get my hands on this medication despite not even having a penis attached to my body, who’s to say someone under 25 (Hims’ age requirement) or with high blood pressure wouldn’t lie to get access despite potential health risks.

According to Thomas Walsh, director of Men’s Health Center at the University of Washington Medical Center, a doctor working for one of these telehealth startups will be specifically focused on profit opposed to the health of the patient.

The licensed physician never sees the person seeking treatment and his check is signed by the same company selling the drugs.

A “dynamic online visit” is never the same as a trip to the doctor’s office.

So long as men in Washington tell women they’ve never met what to do with their reproductive rights, men must muster up the courage to chat face-to-face about their sexual performance with a doctor.