Medical Gaslighting: What Is It and What Can You Do About It?

Medical Gaslighting:  What Is It and What Can You Do About It?
| by Kristy Dalechek

The US dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster recently announced that their 2022 word of the year is «gaslighting» — or as Merriam-Webster defines it, «the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one's own advantage.»

The term “medical gaslighting” has also been gaining interest. Medical gaslighting is a term used to describe when a health care professional dismisses, invalidates or belittles a patient’s concerns or symptoms. While anyone can fall victim, it tends to be more prominent in women. For example, research suggests women are 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack and 33 percent more likely to have a wrong diagnosis after a stroke. Another study compared the medical outcomes of men and women who came to emergency rooms for stomach pain and found that women were 33% more likely to wait longer than men and receive less pain relief medication despite having similar symptoms.

Signs of Medical Gaslighting

1. Gut feeling that something is wrong, but you are being told everything is fine.

2. Concerns are being dismissed as stress, anxiety, depression, or weight related.

3. You feel talked down to, belittled, or dismissed.

4. Your provider will not order key imaging or lab work to rule out or confirm a diagnosis and will not explain why you do not need them.

5. Your provider interrupts you and does not engage in a two-way conversation.

In a worse case scenario, medical gaslighting can lead to delayed diagnosis or even missed diagnosis.

How to Respond To Medical Gaslighting

1. Speak Up

Be your own advocate. Clearly explain your concerns and express your desire to have a collaborative relationship with your provider. There is nothing wrong with stating that you do not feel your concerns are being addressed. Reframe the conversation. Ask your provider to “control, alt, delete” and start again. Reboot is the first thing tech support asks me to do when my computer isn’t working, same can be said for your medical discussions.

2. Document, Document, Document

Keep and note detailed observations. Track symptoms: document date, time and circumstances surrounding symptoms. Document any potential triggers. If it seems related, document vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure or temperature. If applicable take photos of symptoms such as rashes or swelling. If you have pain, describe the pain. Is the pain sharp, dull, throbbing? Is the pain constant or does it wax and wane? The more concrete information you can share the better.

3. Ask Questions

Make a list before the appointment of any questions you might have and do not be afraid to ask additional questions as they come up during your appointment. The only bad questions are the ones you choose not to ask. It can also be helpful to ask, “is there anything else I need to know?” or “If I was your mother what would you advise her to ask?”

4. Get a Second Opinion

It is never wrong to get a second opinion. If you do not feel completely comfortable with the information you are receiving from your provider, seek a second opinion. You can even ask your current provider for a referral to another specialist in your area. Just because you seek a second opinion does not mean you have to change providers. You may find the second opinion confirms your current provider.

5. Bring a Healthcare Advocate

Everyone should have a healthcare advocate, whether family, friend or professional. Having an extra set of ears and emotional support at appointments can be helpful. An advocate can reiterate your concerns and validate your experiences. An advocate can take notes to help you remember exactly what was said during the appointment and can help manage follow up. Greater National Advocates is a great resource to find an advocate that meets your needs.

6. Don't Give Up

If you have exhausted all your options and you still do not feel you have adequate answers, switch providers. You know your body better than anyone else. Listening is a two-way street. Listen to your providers, but do not give up on yourself. Keep looking until you find a doctor that you feel is listening and addressing your health concerns.

At Haven Healthcare Advocates we keep a HIPAA secure portal that houses our client’s current medications, provider names and contact information, appointment calendars, appointment notes and a thorough health history. A day or two prior to doctor appointments we reach out to our clients to discuss any questions or concerns they might have. We attend appointments (both in-person and virtually) and make sure before the appointment is over our clients have and understand all the healthcare information they need. We help find and schedule second opinions.

A current client who has been living with ulcerative colitis for over 20 years has us attend all her doctor appointments. After her first appointment with us in attendance, she said it was the most productive office visit she had ever had. You do not need to face your healthcare alone.