Recognizing Medical Gaslighting & What You Can Do About It

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Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation to force someone to question their own reality. In the case of medical gaslighting, it may not always be intentional. Your doctor may not even know there are biases at play in their decision-making or patient care.

That doesn’t make it any less devastating on the patient side. It can cause you to second-guess what you believe to be true on top of the health effects that go along with untreated conditions.

Let’s look at how you can recognize medical gaslighting and what to do if it’s happened to you.

What is medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting is when a health care professional denies or dismisses a patient’s concerns, causing that patient to second-guess their symptoms. 

What is example of medical gaslighting? An example of medical gaslighting is when a doctor downplays your symptoms and tries to convince you that you are overblowing how you feel. 

Some medical professionals may even try to convince you that what you suspect is behind your symptoms is something else. When this happens, it is easy to start doubting the reality of what you’re feeling, often leading to worse health outcomes.

Is medical gaslighting illegal? Medical gaslighting is not illegal. Medical malpractice lawsuits can come into play if a doctor’s misdiagnosis or negligence causes serious harm or injury, but it can be hard to prove gaslighting has occurred.

It’s important then to be your own best advocate, especially if you’re in a demographic that is historically more vulnerable to gaslighting by the medical community.

Why Medical Gaslighting is so Common in Women’s Healthcare

Medical gaslighting is more common in female patients because of a long history of stereotypes in medical care. This kind of thinking dates back to ancient Greece. Hippocrates linked hysteria to a female-only condition caused by the womb traveling freely throughout the body.

These kinds of biases have led to disparities in the treatment of women vs. men that affect everything from how long women wait in emergency rooms to initial diagnoses. Postpartum care is another area of concern, particularly in cases of traumatic pregnancies

Some gynecological conditions like endometriosis are hard to diagnose before biases come into play. Doctors may blame chronic pain on regular period symptoms. 

A delayed diagnosis in more serious health problems like heart disease or stroke, however, can have devastating consequences.

It’s Not Just Gender Bias

Women aren’t the only demographic more likely to face obstacles when it comes to accurate diagnoses. Marginalized groups like people of color and patients in the LGBTQ+ community often have their own obstacles to navigate when dealing with unconscious biases from physicians. 

People of Color

Communities of color have suffered historical biases rooted in disproven beliefs about biological differences and pain thresholds. These biases can make it difficult for people of color who have health issues like chronic pain or fatigue o be taken seriously.

Studies show that Black patients are also more likely than White patients to receive negative treatment from doctors. 

This doesn’t just damage existing relationships between patients and their doctors. It can make it less likely that people of color seek medical attention at all during critical times when conditions are easiest to treat. 

Young People

Health concerns in children and teens may be minimized or dismissed as growing pains or the onset of puberty. This can happen with parents, too, who may assume their teen is being dramatic. Behavioral concerns or phantom pains may actually be a sign of underlying conditions and should be taken seriously.

Patients With Obesity/Overweight Patients

A patient’s weight can quickly become the focus of doctor’s visits, even when symptoms have seemingly nothing to do with weight. This can make a patient feel dismissed, even ashamed, and delay treatment the next time around. 

A missed diagnosis is also more likely if a doctor is focused on one aspect of a patient’s health, like their weight, rather than taking a whole-person approach. 

The LGBTQ+ Community

Negative experiences that include refusal of treatment and harassment are unfortunately too common with LGBTQ+ patients. This may be because of a gap in medical education when it comes to the unique health needs in these communities. 

It can be even more challenging when that patient falls into multiple marginalized groups that each come with an existing set of potential biases.

Patients With Chronic Conditions

Some doctors may look at lengthy medical histories or vague diagnoses with skepticism, which can make treatment of challenging conditions even trickier. Chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and reproductive health concerns are all more likely to get misdiagnosed by healthcare providers.

Recognizing Medical Gaslighting

Medical gaslighting may be tough to spot, especially if you’re just getting to know new medical providers. There are a few things to look for to make sure your care team is in your corner.

What are the signs of medical gaslighting? The signs of medical gaslighting include inflexible thinking on the doctor’s part and a feeling of not being heard.

Here are a few more red flags to look for if you’re worried about being gaslit at the doctor’s office:

  • You feel rushed. A doctor who rushes through a medical history or new patient visit may miss important signs of underlying health concerns. You should feel like your healthcare providers are giving your their full attention at a doctor’s appointment.
  • Your symptoms are dismissed. A doctor may feel more confident about one diagnosis over another and ignore symptoms that don’t fit those preconceptions. There may be underlying biases at play, whether that’s confirmation bias or based on gender or race. 
  • You’re interrupted. Conversations about your symptoms should never be one-sided. A doctor that interrupts you when you’re talking about your health concerns is not getting the full picture of those symptoms.
  • Your medical history is downplayed. You are the expert of your own health history, especially if you’re seeing a doctor for the first time. Any level of victim-blaming for symptoms may be setting you up for a misdiagnosis.
  • They say it’s “all in your head.” Sometimes a mental health condition is what’s standing in the way of your overall well-being. While the gut-brain connection should be taken seriously, mental illness shouldn’t be the only go-to diagnosis for physical symptoms.

Generally, you want your doctor’s visits to feel like a collaboration as you seek better ways to manage your health.

What is the difference between gaslighting and other forms of manipulation? The difference between gaslighting and other forms of manipulation is that gaslighting involves one person trying to alter another’s perception of a situation. Other types of manipulation may involve attempts to get you to do something.

In many cases of medical gaslighting, a doctor may truly believe they know best.

How to Move Forward: Preventing Gaslighting

If you’re in the early stages of getting to know a new doctor, there are ways to prevent gaslighting before it causes an unfortunate misdiagnosis.

1. Track Your Symptoms on Paper

Evidence of worsening symptoms can serve as proof that what you’re feeling is real and measurable. Track your symptoms on a calendar or take photos of visual signs if you can. It will make your discussion with your doctor easier to navigate. 

2. Bring a List of Questions to Your Appointments

Doctors often come to appointments with a full roster of patients on their minds. Come to appointments with questions, including follow-up questions, to keep visits on track. Your doctor may appreciate the efficiency, and you’ll be able to make sure your top questions are answered.

3. Bring Someone Else

If doctor visits cause you some anxiety, bring a family member, friend, or other advocate to help you articulate your main health concerns. They may even notice things during your appointment that you missed. 

In cases of serious illness or major medical procedures, assign a medical designee who knows your wishes and can speak on your behalf. They should be aware of your health history and wishes about pain medication, for starters.

If they’re available to you, shared medical appointments may help you build a sense of community with people who have similar health conditions. They can also support the idea of teamwork when it comes to health and help you avoid an adversarial relationship with your doctor.

4. Speak Up

It can feel daunting to stand up for yourself when you feel like your concerns aren’t being heard, but it’s important that your doctor knows that you’re in their office for a reason. You know your body best, so keep pushing if you’re not feeling heard.

That doesn’t make you a difficult patient. It makes you an informed patient. The doctor-patient relationship should be a collaborative one. Your doctor may not fully understand that what you’re feeling is out of the norm for you, but you do. Patient advocacy starts with you.

If Your Doctor Still Isn’t Hearing You… 

What can I do if my doctor gaslights me? If your doctor gaslights you, it’s well within your right to seek out a second opinion or find a new physician altogether. 

To make sure that it doesn’t happen again, seek out new providers with these tips:

  • Research your doctor. Your health is serious business, so treat it as such. Research potential candidates just as you would with any important decision.
  • Find a doctor willing to dig a little deeper. You want a care team that goes beyond superficial blood work, especially when all of those routine tests come back fine.
  • Ask around. Talk to family members and peers who have come out of an illness feeling better. This can be more powerful than credential-shopping. 
  • Look beyond the credentials. A physician that looks good on paper may not have the best track record with patient care.
  • Find a teammate. You don’t just want a doctor who works for you. You want a doctor who works with you. 

If your physician hasn’t been listening to you, it may be time for a new approach. You deserve a care team that will listen to what you’re saying and work with you. 

At PrimeHealth, we take a whole-body approach to health concerns. We get to the root causes of symptoms with individualized plans for long-lasting wellness. 

Schedule a free consultation today to learn more about how we can help you feel better with our unique brand of holistic care. In the meantime, follow us on Instagram to see what we’re up to in the world of optimized health.

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