What Is Medical Gaslighting?

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What Is Medical Gaslighting?

Medical Gaslighting

Medical gaslighting describes a behavior in which a physician or other medical professional dismisses or downplays a patient’s physical symptoms or attributes them to something else, such as a psychological condition. Medical gaslighting is especially likely to happen to women and people of color.

This article will outline who is most at risk of experiencing medical gaslighting, describe the signs of medical gaslighting, and explain the reasons medical gaslighting happens. It will then explore the impact medical gaslighting can have on patients and discuss whether the term medical gaslighting is fair to healthcare workers. Finally, the article will wrap up with tips on how to avoid medical gaslighting.

Who Is Most at Risk of Experiencing Medical Gaslighting?

Women and people of color are especially likely to experience medical gaslighting. Research on various medical conditions has repeatedly shown that women’s and people of color's symptoms are less likely to be taken seriously than those of White men. Marginalized groups also experience other disparities in the quality of the care they receive.

Women Are More Likely to Have Their Symptoms Attributed to a Mental Health Condition

For example, one study found that when men and women have the same symptoms of coronary heart disease, doctors were significantly less certain of a diagnosis in women patients, and women were twice as likely as men to have their symptoms attributed to a mental health condition. Similarly, other research demonstrated that women with heart disease were treated less aggressively and weren’t as well represented in clinical trials.

Women Receive Cancer Diagnoses Later Than Men

Another study indicated that it took longer to diagnose women for a number of different kinds of cancer than it did men. In addition, an investigation at an emergency department found that women with abdominal pain were less likely than men with the same issue to receive pain medication, and even when they did receive pain medication they waited longer to get it.

BIPOC Folks

Furthermore, an analysis of emergency department records from several U.S. states demonstrated that Black, AAPI, and Latino people were more likely to have their stroke symptoms misdiagnosed.

Research has also shown that African Americans often receive lower quality health care than whites for a variety of conditions, at least in part due to racism.

What Are the Signs of Medical Gaslighting?

There are several common ways that medical gaslighting happens, including when healthcare professionals:

  • Dismiss the patient’s symptoms and fail to take their concerns seriously
  • Don't listen to the patient or constantly interrupt them
  • Laugh at their patients' concerns or suggest that what they’re experiencing is in their head
  • Lack empathy or sensitivity to a patient’s pain or concerns
  • Blame the patient for their condition
  • Attribute the cause of a medical issue to a mental health condition

Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?

Medical gaslighting may not always be conscious. In fact, if healthcare providers' treat women or people of color differently, it may be due to implicit instead of explicit bias. Part of this may be a result of systemic issues.

For example, research has shown that the United States National Institutes of Health have generally overfunded research on diseases that primarily impact men and underfunded research about diseases that primarily impact women. As a result, medical professionals aren’t as knowledgeable about the women's health.

Studies have also demonstrated that discrimination is still prevalent in medicine, with one study finding that Black patients were two and half times more likely than White patients to be described negatively at least once in their medical records.

Impact of Medical Gaslighting

Medical gaslighting can impact patients in several ways. In particular, patients may spend a long time attempting to find a doctor who can accurately diagnose their symptoms, leading to excessive tests, frequent visits to medical professionals, and misdiagnoses that need to be corrected.

This is not only stressful for the patient, but research has also indicated that as patients continue to seek an accurate diagnosis, their history makes them increasingly less credible to doctors, who become less likely to trust the patient's description of their own symptoms.

Not surprisingly, medical gaslighting also leads to worse medical outcomes. For example, research on traumatic brain injury (TBI) has shown that women are less likely than men to be admitted to intensive care following a mild TBI, and women with a moderate to severe TBI were hospitalized for a shorter duration than men. Seemingly, as a result of these issues, women with a TBI had worse health outcomes after six months than men.

Is It Fair to Use the Term 'Medical Gaslighting?'

While there is ample evidence to suggest that the issues highlighted by the concept of medical gaslighting are real, some have pointed out that the term is one-sided and suggests abusive intent on the part of healthcare professionals.

The Medical System Needs to Reformed

However, one doctor notes that the whole American medical system is to blame rather than the doctors themselves. The system is rife with problems, such as allowing doctors minimal time with each patient leading to a reliance on biases that may not be applicable to a specific patient, inadequate training in mental health, and physical and mental exhaustion.

There’s a dire need for reform in the healthcare system, including allowing physicians to take the time they need to make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe a course of treatment.

At the same time, medical professionals should be required to learn about implicit biases and how to avoid applying them to their patients. Unfortunately, these changes won’t happen overnight. Therefore, given the power doctors often exercise over their patients, it's important for patients, especially women and people of color, to be aware of how their medical symptoms may be overlooked or ignored.

How to Avoid Medical Gaslighting

Until the American healthcare system changes, medical gaslighting will likely remain a problem. Here are things you can do to ensure you get the care you need.

Find a Doctor You Trust

If you ever feel like your doctor is dismissing your symptoms or talking down to you, find another doctor who takes you seriously and you feel comfortable explaining your symptoms to.

Bring a Trusted Friend or Family Member With You

If you’re worried about being taken seriously or getting a correct diagnosis, bring a trusted friend or family member to your appointment. This ensures you will have someone there who can back you up if a healthcare provider questions your observations of your symptoms.

This individual may also ask questions you might not think of and remember facts and advise from the appointment that you may have missed.

Write Questions and Symptoms Down

To ensure all of your concerns are being addressed, come to your appointment with a written list of all the questions you want to discuss with your doctor.

It can also be helpful to keep a record of your symptoms and their progression, as well as details of any changes in your health to bring with you. You may also want to take notes during your appointment that you can refer to later, especially if there's anything that comes up during the appointment that you might need to follow up on.

Get a Second Opinion

If you aren’t satisfied with the first diagnosis you receive, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. This may be especially important if you feel a doctor from a different specialty, such as a women’s health professional, may be better able to understand the issue you’re experiencing.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, medical gaslighting is a reality for many people. If you've been affected by medical gaslighting, please discuss your concerns with the healthcare facility. You also might be able to file a lawsuit. Also, don't hesitate to get second opinions and search for a mental health professional if you find that you're having a hard time dealing with the effects of medical gaslighting.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.