MEDICAL GASLIGHTING: WHAT IS IT? AND WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
Have you ever had legitimate health concerns that were dismissed by your doctor? Have you had a medical condition that remained undiagnosed for a long time because your healthcare provider wasn’t taking the needed medical action?
If yes, then you may have been experiencing patient gaslighting. Even though gaslighting in the medical field can happen to anyone, research has shown that women and people of color are more likely to be dismissed by healthcare providers.
Continue reading to learn more about medical gaslighting, how it happens, and how to advocate for yourself in a healthcare setting.
“Medical gaslighting” or “patient gaslighting” are terms used to describe instances when a medical provider dismisses a patient’s valid health concerns.
In these cases, the medical professional wrongly blames the patient’s symptoms on psychological factors (stress, anxiety, depression) or other unrelated factors (their weight) without a full investigation.
“Gaslighting” is when someone uses their position of power or authority to make someone else doubt their own judgment or even sanity. It’s a reference to the name of the 1944 film “Gaslight”. In the black-and-white movie, a man manipulates his wife into thinking she was losing her mind.
Within the healthcare and medical fields, patients who experience medical gaslighting often feel dismissed, invalidated, and inadequately cared for by their doctor or healthcare provider.
Patient gaslighting can result in:
- A misdiagnosis that leads to detrimental health consequences
- Delayed treatment
- Persistent uncomfortable or painful symptoms
- Psychological and emotional stress for the patient
This problem can happen to anyone. Nonetheless, reports have shown certain people are more likely to have their symptoms dismissed by healthcare professionals, such as women and patients of color.
Two articles on this subject (Women are calling out “medical gaslighting” and Feeling dismissed? How to spot “medical gaslighting” and what to do about it) were recently published in 2022 in the “New York Times”. The articles received thousands of responses from patients sharing their own experiences with medical gaslighting.
Gaslighting can happen when you’re seeking medical attention for symptoms you’ve been experiencing. As a result, an underlying serious health condition can remain undiagnosed and untreated.
It isn’t always easy to spot gaslighting by a medical provider. However, there are some red flags you should be aware of when seeking medical care:
- You’re constantly interrupted by your healthcare provider while trying to explain your symptoms
- You feel like your health concerns are minimized, downplayed, or not taken seriously by your doctor
- You feel like your provider isn’t engaged in the conversation with you
- Your provider questions the validity of your symptoms without further investigation
- You don’t receive important lab or imaging tests to confirm or rule out a diagnosis
- You don’t receive a clear explanation as to why you’re experiencing certain symptoms
It’s important to note that if your doctor tells you that your symptoms are normal or the result of stress, it doesn't necessarily mean you’re being gaslit. A lot of times, that’s exactly what your symptoms are.
On the other hand, if your doctor dismisses your concerns without running some tests to make sure or trying to convince you of a reason, this may be a sign of gaslighting.
Several patients have shared their experiences of how they were ignored by the doctors to who they turned for help. Their symptoms weren’t taken seriously which endangered their lives or delayed their treatment.
They reported their doctors telling them variations of the following medical gaslighting phrases:
- “People who have this condition don’t get this sick”
- “You need to lose weight and you’ll be fine”
- “This is something you’ll just have to live through”
- “You’re overweight and it’s putting stress on your body”
- “You’re probably just stressed”
- “You just need to take better care of yourself”
- “It’s all in your head”
After going through several doctors and a lot of pain, these patients finally learned and treated what was causing their symptoms.
If you think you’re being ignored by your medical provider or you feel that your doctor isn’t taking you seriously, there are things you can do to deal with patient gaslighting.
Before anything else, talk to your health provider and express how real your concerns are and that you feel that you’re not receiving proper help. In case that doesn’t work, there are some tips that can help you deal with the situation:
- Keep track of your symptoms and tests: Write down your symptoms – when they start, when they stop, when they get worse, and when they get better. Also, compile a file of any medical tests or images you’ve received for them. This way, you’ll have all the information you need when you go to your next doctor’s appointment
- Ask questions: If you’re not convinced with the reason you’ve been given for your symptoms or you don’t understand what your doctor is trying to tell you, don’t be shy. Ask any follow-up questions you may have and bring up any remaining concerns.
- Take with you someone who can support you: Bring someone you trust with you to your appointment – a relative or a friend. They can verify your symptoms or concerns especially if they’ve witnessed them.
- Seek a second opinion: It might be useful to get a second medical opinion from a different healthcare professional. You can try to find someone who’s more attentive and responsive to you.
- Get in touch with a patient advocate: Patient advocates are professionals who can help you communicate better with your healthcare provider and resolve any conflicts that may arise.
- Look for support groups: Try to find a support group for people with the same condition as you. Various health conditions have online and physical support groups that share different patient experiences, symptoms, information, and helpful resources.
If you feel like your pain isn’t taken seriously by your doctor or isn’t being addressed properly, you might be experiencing medical gaslighting. This can lead to delayed treatment or the misdiagnosis of a serious health problem.
Identifying and handling patient gaslighting is crucial for proper patient care, accurate disease diagnosis, and the prevention of dangerous health consequences.
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- The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine - PMC
- Sixty seconds on . . . medical gaslighting | The BMJ
- Racial disparities in Health Care: Highlights From Focus Group Findings - Unequal Treatment - NCBI Bookshelf
- Is it me? The impact of patient–physician interactions on lupus patients’ psychological well-being, cognition and health-care-seeking behaviour - PMC
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