Have you ever felt patronized or ignored by your healthcare provider? Chances are you’ve experienced medical gaslighting. This article provides examples of medical gaslighting and tips on how to protect yourself from it.
The term gaslighting comes from a 1930s play about a husband who nearly drives his wife mad by getting her to doubt what she perceives. In his deception, he dims the gas lights in their home, then tells her she’s imagining it.
In psychology, gaslighting describes an imbalance of power between two individuals. The abuser makes the victim doubt they’re feelings, memory and even their sanity.
The abuser can be someone in a position of authority. It’s usually someone whom the victim trusts. The victim is someone with a perceived vulnerability such as gender, race or nationality.
Table of Contents
What does medical gaslighting mean?
Medical gaslighting occurs when a healthcare provider ignores, rejects or dismisses a patient’s symptoms. Delayed diagnosis and treatment as well as prolonged suffering are often the result. In worst case scenarios, death has occurred.
With medical gaslighting, physicians use their position of authority to create doubt in the minds of their patients. This undermines the provider-patient relationship, one that revolves around trust.
As these examples of medical gaslighting will show, gaslighting can occur in a variety of ways. Your doctor may lead you to believe your symptoms are all in your head. Or they may tell you you’re being overly sensitive. They can also make you feel like you’re being a hypochondriac.
Offenses can occur in the emergency room (ER), your doctor’s office, or any facility where you interact with those in charge of your care. Each is equally damaging.
Effects of medical gaslighting on mental health
Medical gaslighting can create self-doubt, anxiety and depression. Feelings of hopelessness can set in, especially when dealing with unbearable chronic pain.
The patient-provider relationship is one of the few relationships where we bare all in our search for answers. To be met with insensitivity, condescension, and contempt is emotionally jarring.
Some people lose faith in the healthcare system altogether as a result. This further perpetuates delayed treatment.
How common is medical gaslighting?
Medical gaslighting is often rooted in bias based on negative perceptions of certain groups of people. Bias can exist towards people of a specific gender or sexual identity, age, education level, weight and socioeconomic level.
Gender bias is based on sexism that treats women and anyone perceived as feminine, as weaker, both in body and mind. This traces back to the days when physicians attributed hysteria to having a “wandering” uterus.
Physicians demonstrating gender bias may be quick to recommend antidepressants over diagnostic measures.
Racial bias is rooted in decades of institutional racism, particularly towards African Americans. Other minorities, particularly Hispanics, have also been victimized. However, African American women experience bias in higher numbers.
Physicians demonstrating racial bias may believe African Americans are non-compliant and uncooperative. Quality of care suffers as a result.
Examples of medical gaslighting
If you have lived a little, chances are you may have experienced the subtle signs of medical gaslighting in some form. Below are some common examples of medical gaslighting.
Your physician trivializes your symptoms
Your provider may make light of your symptoms. In response to your symptoms, your provider may say something like, “Oh, that’s probably just…”. Or they may blame your symptoms on something else. Like me, you can be easily blinded, especially if your symptoms are mild.
When I was initially diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, a blistering autoimmune disease, I visited a highly respected dermatologist. He prescribed Cellcept to manage my disease while tapering me off of Prednisone.
During my next few visits, I described some odd side effects. My movements began feeling jerky, not fluid, such as when I turned my head, or lifted my arm.
“You must have something else going on,” my doctor insisted. “That’s not from the medicine.”
My intuition told me my symptoms were caused by my new prescription. But my doctor was so reassuring, I wanted to believe him. I wanted that medication to work because I was afraid of my disease spiraling out of control.
Your physician refuses to perform diagnostic testing
In an ideal world, everyone would receive the same level of care, regardless of their age, race, gender and other factors. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.
I had suffered with symptoms of endometriosis since I was 15. Periods that lasted 7-10 days. Bleeding through my sanitary pads. Pain when I sat down. Pain when I went to the bathroom. Pain when I ovulated.
But I couldn’t get a gynecologist to take me seriously until I was 22.
“You’re probably not regulated yet,” they all would say.
After seeing several gynecologists, I finally found one willing to perform a laparoscopy. Unfortunately she only saw the scar tissue, but overlooked the disease.
She was the one doctor who I thought could help me. Now she began to gaslight me like all the others. I guess the scar tissue was a figment of both of our imaginations.
I wouldn’t be diagnosed until a year later by a gynecologist who specializes in endometriosis.
This example of medical gaslighting is not uncommon. The average diagnosis time for endometriosis is 10 years. So it’s very likely that many women with endometriosis have experienced medical gaslighting at some point.
It’s hard to believe all these years later that doctors still ignore the signs of endometriosis.
Your physician insinuates that you’re being irrational
Rather than admit to not knowing, some physicians will imply that you’re a hypochondriac, or emotionally unstable. This creates more than just self-doubt about your symptoms. You may begin to doubt your sanity as well.
I once ended up in therapy because of a doctor who was unfamiliar with migraine aura. Symptoms included seeing zig-zag patterns in my vision field. This was in the early days of the internet, before information became so readily available online.
Because truth be told, the more knowledgeable I am, the better chance I have of being diagnosed.
After a few tests came back negative, my doctor just assumed I was having anxiety over a recent break-up. I was spooked, and I believed her.
This wouldn’t be the only time a doctor would create doubt.
Years later, I would tell my dermatologist that my side-effects from Cellcept were worsening. In addition to the strange muscle sensations, the medicine made my nerves feel on edge. I found myself easily startled.
“You’ve always seemed a little high strung,” my dermatologist said with a chuckle, as though he was privy to some inside joke. “What kind of work did you say you do?”
His words caught me off guard. But once again, self-doubt took root. After all, I was stressed out. I was a single mom moving at 100 miles per hour. And I had a demanding job.
The strange muscle sensations I experienced were mild enough to where I thought I could have been imagining it.
Your physician responds harshly or refuses to collaborate
The patient-provider relationship should be a collaborative one. A good doctor will encourage your involvement in making medical decisions. Negative behavior and a refusal to collaborate is an immediate red flag.
Your provider may come across condescending, curt or cocky. They may appear gentle, even parental, in a patronizing kind of way. They may interrupt you when you’re speaking or rush through your visit, causing you to feel out of sorts.
My doctor seemed annoyed when I told him I wanted to discontinue the Cellcept. “Okay, fine!”, he said in a huff.
Although there were other medicines he could have prescribed, he gave me two, equally unappealing choices. Continue the Cellcept, or begin treatment with an IV-infused medication I had already refused on multiple occasions.
I felt backed into a corner. What happened to the patient-physician relationship and working together as a team?
It may come as a shock to you if your physician is curt, harsh, or insensitive. You may be taken aback and unsure of how to respond.
“I suspect this pregnancy is going nowhere,” a gynecologist once told me. His insensitivity was alarming.
I was about 6 weeks pregnant and spotting at the time. I was shocked that I had even gotten pregnant. Endometriosis left my fallopian tubes completely blocked with scar tissue. Somehow I had gotten pregnant anyway.
But my hCG levels, the hormone produced by the placenta when you become pregnant, appeared to be leveling off and not increasing as it should.
“Why does it seem like I bleed harder with activity,” I asked. My commute to work required me to walk several blocks and a couple flights of stairs at Grand Central Station in New York. I remember feeling like my uterus was going to fall out.
“Just be happy you were able to get pregnant”, he responded coldly. “You didn’t think you could get pregnant, now you know you can.”
That answer stung like a slap in the face. What if I couldn’t get pregnant again?
Fortunately, I followed my intuition. Two doctors later, a friend referred me to an obstetrician who handled her sister’s high risk pregnancy.
“You’re threatening to miscarry, but I’m optimistic”, he said on my first visit. At my request, he put me on “house rest”.
I’m happy to report, my little “pregnancy that’s going nowhere” is now a chemical engineer.
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Your physician refuses to treat you
With the explosion of the opioid epidemic, medical gaslighting towards people suffering from invisible illnesses has increased.
People suffering from excruciating pain are desperate for relief. But more and more they’re being denied treatment out of concern they may be drug seeking.
The term, “drug seeking” is used among medical professionals to describe the behavior of someone who falsely reports symptoms in order to get drugs like opioid and benzodiazepines.
African Americans are already assumed to have a higher tolerance for pain by some practitioners. So the odds of them receiving adequate care compared to other races is already much lower.
With the opioid epidemic, the gap in pain treatment has widened even more. Physicians are often quick to assume that African Americans and Hispanics are drug seeking.
As an African American man who lived in the inner city, my fiance can attest to this fact.
Early in 2022, he began experiencing severe abdominal pain. In the preceding months, he had been plagued with reflux, nausea, and vomiting on occasion. His symptoms were well documented in his medical records.
With a 7 out of 10 pain level, he scheduled an appointment with his primary care physician. His doctor gave him scripts for several diagnostic imaging studies, but refused to prescribe anything for pain.
“You can wait until after the test results come back,” the doctor said.
Diagnostic testing would take weeks to complete, at the least. To be expected to carry on with that level of pain is inhumane.
He went to the emergency room when his pain level reached 10 out of 10. By this point he couldn’t hold down food or liquids, and was throwing up bile. He was doubled over in pain as he waited to be seen.
The attending physician became impatient when my fiance couldn’t compose himself quick enough. He was never examined.
A CAT scan revealed a kidney stone. He was given medicine to help reduce the acid in his stomach and sent on his way.
“I’m not giving him anything for pain,” the physician relayed through the nurse.
“I felt less than human. Animals are treated better than this,” my fiance lamented.
Even when an endoscopy later revealed gastritis and significant inflammation in his esophagus, his medical care didn’t change.
“When I changed location, I got better care”, my fiance noted, referring to his move from the inner city to the suburbs with me.
This example of medical gaslighting illuminates a disparity in our healthcare system. The level of healthcare you receive, and ultimately your life expectancy, is determined by your zip code.
How to Deal With Medical Gaslighting
The important thing to remember is you don’t have to tolerate medical gaslighting. If you feel you are not being heard, here’s what you can do.
Never underestimate the power of self-advocating. While your doctor is an expert in their area of focus, you are the expert when it comes to “you”. Don’t be afraid to approach your physicians with any questions or concerns. If you feel you’re not being heard, respectfully say so.
Prepare for your visit in advance
Bring a list with key points you would like to discuss. This will help you to stay on track while in your appointment. It’s easy to feel “off balance” when someone is trying to gaslight you. Having a list will be like a compass to guide you and keep you on course.
Have faith in yourself and what you are feeling
Don’t allow yourself to be talked out of what you are feeling. You’re not imagining things. You’re not mentally unstable. You almost have to develop a “thick skin” so irrelevant, patronizing words don’t penetrate your barrier.
Bring a friend or relative with you.
There’s strength in numbers. Your physician may curtail some of their gaslighting tendencies in the presence of others. Your friend or family member can also provide important details that can further your point.
Find a new healthcare provider
If all else fails, it may be time to move on. Remember, this is your health, your time and your money. You are the consumer paying for services. You’re not paying to be invalidated and ignored. Persistence is key. You may have to change doctors multiple times until you find someone who will provide the treatment you deserve.
Examples of Medical Gaslighting – Summary
Medical gaslighting is a harmful practice. If left unchecked, it can lead to delayed treatment, misdiagnosis, or even death. Hopefully, these examples of medical gaslighting have shed some light on this practice. Recognizing the signs of medical gaslighting is your first line of defense. Taking action is necessary to prevent yourself from being victimized. Have faith in yourself, stand your ground, and persist until your voice is heard.