Medical gaslighting: What is it and how can it affect your health?

September 27, 2022 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
medical gaslighting

Going to the doctor and having your symptoms or concerns dismissed or downplayed is more than a frustrating experience. This failure of your healthcare provider to listen to you and take the symptoms you report seriously can lead to misdiagnosis and significantly delayed diagnosis of a serious health issue. This behavior by medical professionals is often called medical gaslighting.

Medical gaslighting isn’t always an intentional behavior on the part of healthcare providers. They may be rushed and not take time to listen to your concerns or not see anything in your test results that they feel suggests a health problem. In some cases, however, unconscious or conscious bias comes into play. While medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, some researchers have found that certain groups of people are more likely to experience it than others. That includes older people, women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people.

Signs of medical gaslighting

The signs of medical gaslighting can be subtle. Here are some of the most common ones to be on the lookout for:

  • Poor listening skills and distraction: One of the key tools for making an accurate diagnosis is to get a complete history from the patient. That requires that your healthcare provider listen to you carefully and remain engaged in the conversation. If your provider interrupts or cuts you off or is not fully engaged in the conversation, for example focusing on entering information into their computer or appearing distracted, then they are not listening to what you’re telling them.
  • Condescending behavior: Respect is the foundation of a good patient/provider relationship. You treat the provider with respect and should be treated with respect in return. If your provider treats or speaks to you in a belittling or rude way, it’s a red flag. This behavior can also take the form of the provider dismissing your symptoms or concerns out of hand or suggesting that the cause is most likely psychological rather than physical without doing the examinations and/or testing recommended for people with your symptoms.
  • Refusing to talk about your symptoms: If you try to share your symptoms and ask what might be causing them, your provider should provide you with a thoughtful, evidence-based response. If he or she does not and refuses to talk about the symptoms or says, “That’s normal,” or “You’ll just have to learn to live with it,” you could be experiencing medical gaslighting.
  • Not ordering appropriate tests or not making needed referrals: For many conditions, there are diagnostic tests that can help confirm or rule out a diagnosis. Of course, not all tests are appropriate for a given condition or are appropriate first line tests, for example a CT for some types of headaches. But if your provider isn’t open to ordering appropriate tests, like an ECG for irregular heartbeat or a blood test for someone with symptoms that suggest diabetes, or doesn’t refer you to specialist if needed, you aren’t receiving the most appropriate care.

How to protect yourself from the effects of medical gaslighting

There a several strategies you can use to protect yourself from the negative impact of medical gaslighting on your physical and mental health:

  • Enlist an advocate. Medical gaslighting is stressful and can even make you second guess your instincts, so it can be helpful to have support from someone who has your best interests at heart. Ask a friend or family member to come with you to your appointment to take notes and advocate on your behalf. A health advisor can also be a powerful advocate when you’re not being heard or taken seriously by a healthcare provider.
  • Get a second opinion. If you are not getting the attention, respect, and care you deserve, seek a second opinion from another provider. If you believe that conscious or unconscious bias is contributing to your experience, consider working with a provider who shares your gender, race, background, or sexual orientation.
  • Come to each appointment well prepared. Keep a symptom journal and bring that and a list of your most pressing questions to your appointment so you can guide the conversation.
  • Change providers. If your provider still isn’t listening to you or taking your symptoms seriously, it’s time to find a new provider.
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