Medical Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Handle It

  • Medical gaslighting occurs when a health professional downplays or dismisses your symptoms without cause.
  • Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone but some groups of people may be more susceptible to it.
  • If you think you’re experiencing medical gaslighting, the first step is to talk with your medical team. Your feelings and concerns are valid and should be voiced.

We rely on our medical professionals to help us in times of need. New abnormal symptoms can be alarming and a doctor is supposed to be there to help put your mind at ease and get you the treatment you need. But sometimes medical concerns can be dismissed and when they’re dismissed without proper explanation or cause, this is known as medical gaslighting.

Medical gaslighting can have serious consequences as it may lead to missed diagnosis and improper treatment. It may even induce medical trauma. Follow along as we take a look at what medical gaslighting is and how you can handle it if it happens to you.

What Is Medical Gaslighting?

You may have heard of gaslighting in romantic or family relationships in which the perpetrator uses different techniques to exert control over a person. They usually use manipulation tactics to make their victim second-guess their instincts and doubt their perceptions. But medical gaslighting is different.

According to Health, medical gaslighting occurs when a health professional downplays or dismisses your symptoms without cause. They typically don’t take your concerns seriously or they’ll claim your symptoms are from a vague cause, such as stress. In some cases, they may even make you believe you’re imagining the symptoms altogether and send you home without treatment.

Is Medical Gaslighting Intentional?

GoodRx Health points out that medical gaslighting is not always intentional. Many factors may influence it, such as unconscious bias. The source explains, “Unconscious bias is a preconceived notion that someone has regarding certain races, genders, or various social groups.”

Regardless of what influences it, medical gaslighting is serious because it may lead to a missed diagnosis which can be detrimental to your health. It can also be traumatic and may make you second-guess your current and future symptoms. But the source notes that it’s important to remember your “concerns are valid and deserve proper attention and care.”

Who Is Susceptible to Medical Gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone but some groups of people may be more susceptible to it. GoodRx Health says that women, people of color, and people living with chronic conditions may be more likely to experience medical gaslighting.

The source notes that of these groups, women are one of the most common victims of gaslighting. It’s common for their symptoms to be dismissed as symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or mental health. The source also notes that in the past, some women have even been diagnosed with “female hysteria.” While this diagnosis is outdated, gender bias, unfortunately, still exists.

Common Signs of Medical Gaslighting

Sometimes medical gaslighting is obvious while other times it may not be as easy to spot. If your doctor dismisses your symptoms as normal or says they’re caused by stress, this may be a sign of medical gaslighting. However, GoodRx Health says this alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being gaslighted. The source says you should also be on the lookout for the following signs if you think you’re experiencing medical gaslighting:

  • If your health concerns are dismissed or ignored without cause.
  • If you feel like your doctor is blaming you.
  • If your symptoms are dismissed as normal without explanation.
  • If your diagnosis is based on your gender, race, sexuality, or irrelevant medical history without doing further testing.
  • If you have to argue to be heard or taken seriously.

What to Do if You Think You’re Experiencing Medical Gaslighting

If you think you may be experiencing medical gaslighting you may feel at a loss for what to do but there are steps you can take to deal with the situation.

The first step is talking with your medical team. Your feelings and concerns are valid and should be voiced. Ensure you inform them that you don’t feel like you’re being properly helped. If you talk with your doctor and they still dismiss your symptoms or concerns without cause then there are other things you can do to help the situation. Let’s take a look at these next.

Find a Provider You Connect With

If your doctor isn’t listening to your concerns and isn’t providing an explanation then it might be time to find another provider. While you’re on your search, it’s important that you find a reputable doctor that you connect with.

This doesn’t mean you need to feel like you’re best friends, but connecting with your doctor means you feel like they take you seriously. Health says to look for a provider who is honest and direct and really listens to you when you speak.

Prioritize Your Concerns

Yvonne Bohn, MD, ob-gyn at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health that physicians are under a lot of pressure and have a lot of patients but not enough time. While you may have a long list of questions for your doctor, Dr. Bohn recommends focusing on your most urgent concerns.

Ahead of your appointment make a list of all your health concerns and then prioritize them in order of urgency. This way you can make sure you discuss the most important ones during your appointment. Many providers can also provide insight through email so you may want to save the least urgent health concerns for that.

Keep a Journal

Another important thing to do if you think you’re experiencing medical gaslighting is to keep a symptom journal. Keeping a detailed note of all the symptoms you’re experiencing may help your doctor identify patterns, which may help them with a diagnosis. Be sure to make note of when the symptoms start and stop and what makes them feel worse or better. Provide as much information as you can.

You can also use your journal to make a list of questions to ask during your appointment. This way you won’t forget to bring up all your urgent concerns.

Bring a Friend or Relative to Appointments

GoodRx Health says bringing a close friend or family member to your appointments may also be helpful. Just be sure to bring someone you trust.

Taking a friend or relative to your appointment can be helpful because they can “act as your advocate and witness,” explains the source. Having a companion with you can also help you feel supported. They’ll be able to learn about your medical condition with you and you’ll have someone to talk to after your appointment.

Get a Second Opinion

If you’re unhappy with the medical advice your doctor provides, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. It’s vital to advocate for yourself. A second opinion may be what you need to determine if you are being gaslighted.

GoodRx Health suggests it may also be helpful to get a second opinion from a provider with a shared gender, race, or ethnic background as you. All in all, you want to find a provider that listens attentively and takes your concerns seriously.

Consider Support Groups

Whether you think you’re experiencing medical gaslighting or not, support groups can help you feel less alone. There are tons of support groups for many different conditions and they may even provide useful resources and information.

The New York Times shares Tami Burdick’s story (who was diagnosed with granulomatous mastitis in 2017) and explains that she was initially referred to an infectious disease specialist who dismissed her breast biopsy. Burdick decided to search for answers and along the way found a support group that discussed a gene sequencing test to help identify potential pathogens. She then asked her surgical oncologist to order the test and while it still took 7-months, she finally had an answer. This all goes to show that support groups can really be helpful.

Contact a Patient Advocate

If you think you’re experiencing medical gaslighting you can also contact a patient advocate. GoodRx Health explains they “serve as a liaison between you and your healthcare provider.”

A patient advocate is a trained professional who can help guide you through the healthcare system from helping you with a billing issue to helping you with your follow-up care. Patient advocates may also have other titles like health advocate, patient or health navigator, care or case manager, or ombudsman. But you might be wondering, how do I find one?

GoodRx Health says some are on staff at medical institutions or private practices, and some are volunteers at non-profit organizations. You can search for a patient advocate near you on the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy’s (NAHAC) website. The other great thing about them is you can often communicate through email, text, or video chat, and of course, in person.

File a Complaint

As we mentioned, medical gaslighting can have serious consequences, especially if a serious medical condition goes undiagnosed. In some cases, it may be necessary to file a complaint. Along with working with patient advocacy staff, you may also want to address the problem with your doctor’s supervisor.

If you are still dissatisfied, Dr. Mitchell tells the New York Times that you may want to report your experience to the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Clarissa Vanner

Clarissa Vanner

Clarissa is the Junior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat. She aspires to live a healthy lifestyle by staying active and eating foods that nourish her body, but she isn't afraid to indulge in a little chocolate here and there! Clarissa loves cooking, being outdoors, and spending time with her dog. In her free time, you'll find her relaxing in her hammock or curled up on the couch reading a book.

X