Gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories or perception of reality, was the 2022 word of the year, according to Merriam-Webster. Medical gaslighting, specifically, is a phenomenon in which patients’ illnesses and symptoms are dismissed, ignored, treated as minor or insignificant, or told they are purely psychological. This can lead to misdiagnosis, or a lack of diagnosis, and delay medical intervention. Unfortunately, I have personal experience with this.
Feeling dismissed and ignored when seeking health care
The first time I experienced medical gaslighting was when I was seeking fertility treatment in 2018, and I didn’t recognize it until after the fact. Instead of trying to help me finally get and stay pregnant again, I was dismissed and treated as if it was all in my head. I had real infertility issues, but I have never felt so small or so ignored. One nurse actually told me that my fertility issues were my fault, because the doctor was perfect and never made mistakes. That is unacceptable!
I had to learn to advocate for myself and stand up for myself, but in the end, all I could do was leave that clinic.
A few months ago, I was in the ER, where several practitioners told me that my abdominal pain was probably just from “women issues.” They said that women often “mistake real pain for cramps or constipation.” I repeatedly explained my history of fertility issues and asked to see an OB-GYN to get a correct diagnosis for my pain. The last doctor I saw literally laughed at this idea and said, “Well, I don’t need to know that and I won’t ask whose problem that is.” I got very upset, felt very small and demanded to leave the hospital—I was not going to get answers there. I’ve since met and spoken with my OB, and I am scheduled for a diagnostic laparoscopy for endometriosis.
Knowing medical gaslighting happens way too frequently, it’s important to understand how common medical gaslighting is, know how to spot the warning signs—and identify next steps to take if this happens to you.
How common is medical gaslighting?
Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, but it’s most common for women and people of color. Even when they have the same symptoms as men, women are treated less aggressively for autoimmune disorders, traumatic brain injury and chronic pain.
Women are also made to wait longer for pain medication than men when experiencing the same severe physical symptoms. Doctors are more likely to describe Black patients as agitated or non-compliant than white patients, and this often leads to discrepancies in health care. It is also very common for people of color to receive poor-quality medical care, or for their symptoms to be misdiagnosed or dismissed altogether.
Warning signs of medical gaslighting
It can be difficult to recognize medical gaslighting as it is happening, because many patients feel they should simply trust whatever a doctor says. But it’s important to know what to look out for.
A major sign of medical gaslighting is when a doctor immediately downplays your symptoms, or clearly does not believe you. Here are other red flags.
Signs of medical gaslighting
- Not listening or engaging in a conversation with you
- Not asking questions, or trying to help figure out what’s happening
- Refusing to give you a referral to another specialist that could help you further
- Shutting down your complaints or ignoring your concerns
- Blames you for any of your symptoms (such as saying “you’re just on your period” or “you’re probably just stressed from work”)
- Forcing you to argue just to be taken seriously and listened to
- Trying to convince you it’s just in your head
- Giving you a generalized statistics or stereotypes as a response (instead of looking into your specific symptoms and body)
How to take action
If you have experienced medical gaslighting in the past, or do in the future, know that it is not your fault. Absolutely no one deserves to be ignored or dismissed, and there are people in health care who want to help you.
Here are some concrete ways you can advocate for yourself in a healthcare setting:
- Write down a list of your questions and concerns
- Ask for a copy of your medical records
- Take note of the names of doctors and nurses that meet with you
- Take a family member or friend with you to help listen and speak up for you
- Ask to speak with another doctor or specialist, if you feel that’s needed
- Know your rights and what is unacceptable treatment at any health care facility
- Be firm and assertive—but only you know how you feel
It can be devastating to experience medical gaslighting, but if it happens to you, please try to find another doctor or healthcare practitioner who will listen to you and who will take your concerns seriously. Your health care matters, and you deserve to be heard—without having to fight this hard.