Let’s say you’ve been having a recurring back pain for months. You finally decide to go to the doctor to figure out what’s going on. During your appointment, however, it feels like your doctor is totally brushing off your concerns and he tells you you’d probably feel better if you ate better and exercised more. You really feel like something is wrong, but you think to yourself, he’s the one who went to medical school, I’m probably just a hypochondriac. A few months later, the pain hasn’t subsided, so you go to another doctor, who listens to your concerns, takes the time to properly diagnose what’s wrong and prescribes a course of treatment.
So, what happened with that first doctor? You might’ve experienced medical gaslighting, a term for when a medical professional dismisses or minimizes their patient’s concerns. Read on for more about this disturbing phenomenon and how patients can learn to better advocate for themselves.
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Though it can take many different forms, at its core, gaslighting is a communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of events or doubt yourself in any other way. The phrase originated from a 1938 mystery thriller, Gas Light, written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. The play was later made into a popular movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the film, husband Gregory manipulates his adoring wife Paula into believing she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality.
Though we often hear about gaslighting in romantic relationships, between family members or at work, gaslighting can also happen between a medical professional and their patient.
The term medical gaslighting describes when a medical professional dismisses or minimizes their patient’s concerns. In practice, this could look like telling a patient their symptoms are no big deal or all in their head, or offhandedly recommending weight loss or mental health treatment without really digging into what might be wrong.
Medical gaslighting disproportionately impacts women and people of color. One 2008 paper published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that women were twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a mental illness despite displaying common symptoms of heart disease.
A separate study by researchers at Umeå University in Sweden in 2002 investigated gender differences in the diagnosis and management of neck pain. The researchers found that, after hearing patients describe their neck pain, many doctors asked women psychosocial questions (meant to evaluate an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health) and proposed drug prescriptions. Laboratory tests were requested more often in males.
Black women, who fall into two of the aforementioned groups most susceptible to medical gaslighting, typically have it the worst. Back in 2020, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics released concerning data about the medical bias against Black women in particular—specifically pertaining to maternal mortality. The center found that about 700 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth every year (putting the U.S. in last place among all developed nations in terms of maternal mortality).
That’s a major issue in and of itself, but using standardized maternal mortality data from all 50 states, researchers found that of the 658 women who died of maternal causes in 2018, Black women fared the worst, dying 2.5 times more often than white women (37.1 versus 14.7 deaths per 100,000 live births).
Though a lot of medical gaslighting comes down to gender and racial biases—deeply systemic issues that would require large-scale reform within the medical field to fix—there are a few things you can try to do if you suspect your medical professional is gaslighting you.
Gaslighting works best when a victim isn’t aware of what’s going on. Once you understand what’s happening, you’ll be better equipped to prepare to fight back. If you suspect someone is gaslighting you, educate yourself about what gaslighting is, the tactics a gaslighter uses and ways to handle it. Psychology Today is an excellent resource for articles written by mental health professionals.
This is good advice for any type of gaslighting situation, since the main goal of gaslighting is to make you feel like you’ve lost touch with reality. It’s important to keep a record of things as they happen, to return to as proof if you start to doubt your own memory. Keep track of your symptoms, specific conversations at your appointments, etc.
There’s strength in numbers. Dr. Jennifer Kilkus, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical health psychologist with a special interest in oncology, suggests bringing a friend or family member to your appointments if possible. “They may hear something you don’t, or they may ask a question you may not have thought of. They can also chime in if a doctor attributes your symptoms to something that you know it is not related to, such as stress or weight,” she writes in Psychology Today.
You know yourself and your body better than anyone else. Though Kilkus says it can be a relief to hear that everything’s fine, “If you feel uneasy about letting something go, that may be a sign to seek out a specialist or another opinion.”
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