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When we go to the doctor, we expect to be heard, understood, and treated with respect. But for many patients, this isn’t always the case. When doctors dismiss or invalidate our experiences and symptoms, it can leave us feeling frustrated, confused, and even gaslit. This phenomenon, known as medical gaslighting, can have serious consequences for our health and well-being, particularly when we’re dealing with chronic or poorly understood conditions. In this post, we’ll explore the issue of medical gaslighting in more detail and offer some strategies for dealing with it and advocating for yourself in healthcare.
What is Medical Gaslighting?
In medical gaslighting, a medical professional invalidates a patient’s symptoms, concerns, or experiences. This can occur when a patient, particularly a woman or a member of a marginalized group, reports symptoms or seeks a diagnosis for a condition, but their doctor or healthcare provider fails to take them seriously or misdiagnoses them.
Medical professionals can engage in medical gaslighting by dismissing a patient’s concerns as “just anxiety,” telling them that their symptoms are “all in their head,” or suggesting that they are exaggerating or making up their symptoms. Patients may experience delayed or incorrect diagnoses, lack of access to appropriate treatment, and ongoing physical or emotional distress due to medical gaslighting. Moreover, it can erode trust in the healthcare system and discourage patients from seeking care in the future.
It’s crucial to note that not all medical professionals engage in gaslighting, and many healthcare providers take their patients’ concerns seriously and work to find appropriate diagnoses and treatment plans. Nonetheless, medical gaslighting is a real phenomenon with significant impacts on patients’ health and wellbeing.
Research on medical gaslighting
In recent years, researchers have increasingly investigated the phenomenon of medical gaslighting. Some studies have focused on the prevalence of gaslighting in medical settings, while others have explored the impact of gaslighting on patients and strategies for addressing it.
In 2018, the Journal of Women’s Health published a study that surveyed 335 women who had experienced endometriosis, a condition often dismissed or misdiagnosed by healthcare providers. The study found that 62% of the women surveyed reported experiencing medical gaslighting, including having their symptoms dismissed or being told that their condition was not serious. These women also reported feeling frustrated, anxious, and unsupported by healthcare providers.
The study authors noted that healthcare providers often misunderstand or misdiagnose endometriosis, and patients with the condition may face multiple barriers to receiving appropriate care. Medical gaslighting can exacerbate these challenges by making it difficult for patients to advocate for themselves and communicate their symptoms effectively to healthcare providers.
Another study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2021 surveyed 1,200 women of color about their experiences with healthcare providers. The study found that women of color were more likely to report experiencing medical gaslighting, including having their symptoms dismissed or being told that their concerns were not important.
The study authors noted that medical gaslighting can have a particularly negative impact on women of color, who may already face systemic barriers to accessing quality healthcare. Gaslighting can erode trust in the healthcare system and discourage women of color from seeking care in the future, exacerbating existing health disparities.
The study authors emphasized the need for increased awareness and education around medical gaslighting, as well as more efforts to address systemic biases in healthcare and improve communication between patients and providers.
Consequences of medical gaslighting
Patients, particularly those with chronic or poorly understood conditions, may experience significant consequences as a result of medical gaslighting. The women surveyed in the earlier mentioned studies reported several potential consequences of medical gaslighting, including:
- Delayed diagnosis and treatment: Healthcare providers who dismiss or downplay patients’ symptoms may be less likely to pursue a diagnosis or recommend appropriate treatment, resulting in delays in getting necessary care and potentially causing the patient’s condition to worsen over time.
- Physical and emotional distress: Patients who are gaslit by healthcare providers may experience frustration, anxiety, and a lack of support, which can lead to ongoing physical and emotional distress, especially if the patient is dealing with a chronic condition.
- Disengagement from the healthcare system: Patients who experience medical gaslighting may lose trust in the healthcare system and may be less likely to seek care in the future, resulting in further delays in diagnosis and treatment, as well as missed opportunities for preventive care.
- Health disparities: Medical gaslighting can exacerbate existing health disparities, as the study on women of color suggests. It can make it harder for marginalized groups to receive appropriate care, perpetuating systemic biases in healthcare and contributing to health inequities.
Dealing with medical gaslighting
Dealing with medical gaslighting can be challenging, but there are strategies that patients can use to address the issue and advocate for themselves. Here are some tips:
- Educate yourself: Learn as much as you can about your condition and the treatments available. This can help you feel more informed and confident when communicating with healthcare providers.
- Keep a symptom journal: Write down your symptoms and when they occur. This can help you provide more detailed information to healthcare providers and can also help you track changes in your condition over time.
- Find a supportive healthcare provider: Look for a healthcare provider who takes your concerns seriously and is willing to work with you to find solutions. This may involve seeking a second opinion or switching providers if necessary.
- Speak up: If you feel that your concerns are not being taken seriously, don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself. You can ask for more information, request additional testing or treatment options, or express your feelings about the care you are receiving.
- Seek support: Medical gaslighting can be emotionally distressing, so it’s important to seek support from friends, family, or a mental health professional. Online support groups or patient advocacy organizations can also provide valuable resources and information.
- File a complaint: If you feel that you have been mistreated by a healthcare provider, you can file a complaint with their licensing board or with the healthcare facility where you received care. This can help ensure that the provider is held accountable for their actions and can also help prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
Overall, it’s important for patients to trust their instincts and advocate for themselves when dealing with medical gaslighting. By being proactive and seeking support, patients can improve their chances of receiving appropriate care and achieving better health outcomes.