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Is Your Doctor Gaslighting You? How to Tell & What to Do About It

Healthcare professionals routinely dismiss, downplay or question women's concerns. What you need to know.

You’ve probably heard of, and maybe experienced, gaslighting in a personal or professional relationship. But you may not recognize the extent to which this kind of behavior can happen in the health-care arena. In what’s often called “medical gaslighting,” health professionals essentially dismiss, downplay or question patients’ concerns about their symptoms or overall health.

Research shows women are more likely to experience this than men are. And it happens across an array of health conditions, particularly with pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and reproductive health problems, experts say.

“Women are more at risk because we’ve been socialized to be people pleasers, so if our symptoms are dismissed, we’re less likely to push back,” says Jennifer Wider, MD, a women’s health expert based in Connecticut and editor of the book The Savvy Woman Patient. “Women have had a long history of having medical problems dismissed and attributed to an emotional state.”’

Doctors don’t always listen to women

In a 2023 study, researchers from the University of Connecticut analyzed narratives from patient-provider interactions involving nearly 400 women with poorly understood chronic pain conditions. There was a high prevalence of discrediting, silencing and stereotyping practices in these conversations.

Besides the fact that this treatment didn’t help the patients’ pain, it often led to a delayed diagnosis and made the women feel worse emotionally. “I don’t think medical professionals are trying to manipulate people’s sense of what’s real in a nefarious way, but the effect is the same because it creates a mistrust in the self,” says lead author Elizabeth Hintz, PhD, an assistant professor of health communication at the University of Connecticut.

The key to dealing with medical gaslighting? Learn to advocate for yourself. Read on for advice for how to do that:

Problem: Your doctor dismisses your symptoms as being related to stress, age or diet. You think they’re more serious.

Doctor carefully listening to patient complaints
NataBene

“We’re the best judges of our bodies and we know what’s out of the ordinary and what isn’t,” Dr. Wider says. “Trust your instincts. Repeat your concerns until you feel heard.” It can help to add, I would really like to make sure this isn’t more serious. How can we do that?

If you don’t make progress with that doctor, seek a second and perhaps third opinion. “Start the appointment by saying I’ve talked to doctors about this before and haven’t been believed,” advises Sarah Fraser, MD, a family physician in Halifax who has written about gaslighting in medicine. “As healthcare providers, that makes us pay attention and make sure we don’t do that to people.”

The strategy that saved one woman’s life

That’s what Pat Roque ended up doing, after she began experiencing mental fogginess, confusion, balance problems, fatigue, muscle weakness, and movement difficulties in 2021. “My brain was not working right. I was losing my memory, my words, my ability to tell a simple story,” says Roque, now 60, a professional speaker and career coach in Calabash, North Carolina. “I knew something was very wrong.” Over the next two years, several doctors dismissed her symptoms as being related to long COVID or hormonal changes, and her repeated requests for a brain scan were denied.

“Refusing to accept no for an answer led me to switch healthcare systems,” she says. The new doctors listened to her concerns and sent her for an MRI that revealed a meningioma brain tumor the size of a pool cue ball. Since having it successfully removed in March of 2023, she has regained most of her functions. “Practicing what I teach and advocating for myself truly saved my life,” she says.

Problem: Appointments are too short for you to bring up your concerns

woman leaving doctors
dragana991

Research shows that doctors interrupt patients after an average of 11 seconds. That’s why it’s important to prepare ahead of time for the visit. Write down your symptoms and questions and prioritize your top three to five. “Report your symptoms in concrete language that describes what’s happening and the impact it has on your life,” Hintz advises. You could say, I’m experiencing intense lower back pain that feels sharp or stabbing. It limits my ability to work and drive.

It also can help to bring a supportive friend or family member who can provide another pair of ears and help you feel empowered. If you have an extensive list of concerns and not enough time to address them all in one visit, you can hand the list to the doctor and ask for a follow-up appointment.

Problem: You’re not comfortable with a medication or test your doctor recommends

woman refusing medication; medical gaslighting
Tero Vesalainen

It can feel difficult to question a doctor’s recommendation. But it’s vital to do so, Dr. Wider says, so it’s wise to prepare for this possibility ahead of time. She suggests writing a script for how you could approach a conversation like this tactfully and practicing it in front of a mirror.

If you get test results on a voicemail message or through the patient portal and you have questions, call and ask to speak to the doctor. The doctor is unlikely to be available immediately so “ask to be called back. You may have to wait a day or two but it’s your right, as a patient, to be called back,” Dr. Wider says. If it doesn’t happen in a reasonable timeframe, call the nurse line and enlist the nurse’s help in getting more info from the doctor. Or you can use the patient portal to communicate with the doctor, Hintz suggests.

If you continue to feel dismissed, “it’s time to look for another doctor,” Dr. Wider says. “Find a doctor that takes their time with you and that you feel comfortable with.” They’re out there, though it may take perseverance to find them, as Roque discovered. But it can mean the difference between getting the right diagnosis and treatment—and not.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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