What is Medical Gaslighting?

January 24, 2024.

medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon

Have you ever had the unsettling experience of being dismissed by a doctor or have had concerns about your health that were brushed off, only for these troubles to linger on or get worse? If you responded affirmatively, you may have been a casualty of medical gaslighting. But, what exactly does this term mean? 

“Medical gaslighting” is a phenomenon in which medical professionals negate, dismiss or otherwise trivialize patients’ symptoms or health concerns, often leading to a delay in proper diagnosis and treatment.

In this article, we will delve deep into the truth about medical gaslighting: the what, the why, and the how. We’ll look at it from every angle – be it the common signs to the underlying reasons, the potential consequences to the individuals affected, and even the system that in some cases inadvertently might support it. 

What is medical gaslighting?

Imagine this; you head to the doctor’s office because you’re feeling unwell. The symptoms have been persistent, but every single time, the doctor dismisses your concerns. You are told that it’s all in your head, that maybe you’re too stressed, you’re overreacting or it’s just your anxiety talking. This is medical gaslighting

Medical gaslighting can be defined as a form of psychological abuse in which medical professionals downplay or outright dismiss a patient’s symptoms or health concerns. This maltreatment can lead to delayed medical care, misdiagnoses, and more severe health outcomes. It is a disturbing scenario, especially considering that the victims often depend on these professionals for guidance when ill. 

Now, let’s break it down a little further. The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from a 1944 movie called ‘Gaslight’ where a man manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane. Similarly, when a healthcare provider belittles, mocks, or otherwise manipulates a patient’s perception of their own condition, a similar type of psychological manipulation is at play. 

How and why does it occur? 

Medical gaslighting isn’t an act of intentional evil by doctors, rather, it emerges from a complex interplay of systemic and institutional factors. Let’s take a brief look at these: 

  • Systemic factors: The healthcare system is often under significant pressure, managing heavy workloads and time-constrained healthcare appointments. In these situations, trivialization of patient symptoms can occur.
  • Institutional factors: Sometimes, doctors may hold unconscious biases towards certain patients, leading them to unfairly discount their symptoms or concerns. These biases might be related to the patient’s gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, or mental health history.

By understanding the factors that contribute to medical gaslighting, we can begin to address this issue head-on, and work towards rectifying these practices for a better healthcare landscape.

Systemic factors

Allocation of time: 

Our healthcare system often operates under such pressured conditions where time resources are scarce. In a typical clinic, doctors may only have 15 to 20 minutes per patient. This lack of time can result in rushed consultations where patients do not have enough time to fully explain their symptoms or concerns, leading to misunderstandings or oversights that may resemble gaslighting. 

Over-reliance on diagnostic tests: 

Another systemic issue is the over-reliance on diagnostic tests. While these tests are crucial in detecting and diagnosing various conditions, they are not infallible. Their scope is limited and they might not pick up on every ailment. When test results are negative, yet a patient is clearly unwell, this discrepancy can be mistakenly interpreted as the patient exaggerating their illness or their symptoms being all in their head. This begins the narrative of medical gaslighting. 

Educational gaps: 

Educational gaps are yet another systematic factor causing medical gaslighting. Some medical professionals may not be adequately familiar with certain illnesses, especially those that are rare or primarily affect certain populations. In such instances, their knowledge gap may contribute to dismissive behavior towards the patient’s concerns. 

The insurance influence: 

Certain procedures or treatments may not be covered under a patient’s insurance policy which can restrict the diagnostic processes and therapies a patient receives. When medically necessary tests or interventions are being denied for reasons of cost or policy, patients may feel that their symptoms and experiences are being invalidated. This feeds into the psychotic vortex of medical gaslighting. 

Institutional factors

Power dynamics: 

One common cause of medical gaslighting is the inherent power dynamic present in patient-provider relationships. Healthcare professionals are seen as the authority and are trusted to make decisions regarding a patient’s care. When this trust is misused, it becomes a platform for gaslighting.  

Limited time & resources: 

In many healthcare systems around the world, providers operate under high pressure with limited time and resources. In such situations, the nuances of a patient’s medical history or symptoms can be overlooked. You might be diagnosed on the basis of a quick physical examination or a short conversation, leaving little room for personalized and comprehensive care. 

Implicit biases:

Unfortunately, implicit biases can also manifest within the medical context. These unconscious biases may include gender, race, age, socioeconomic status or weight. These preconceived notions can influence a healthcare provider’s diagnosis and treatment, leading to medical gaslighting. The unrecognized symptoms that you are experiencing may be seen as less legitimate or even nonexistent because of these biases. 

Consequences of medical gaslighting

Psychological impacts 

Psychologically, victims of medical gaslighting can suffer from diminished self-confidence and a severe loss of trust. The trauma of being consistently dismissed or minimized can lead to fear of seeking medical help, resulting in avoidant behavior of healthcare institutions. This may seriously impact the patient’s overall health outcomes. 

Emotional impacts 

Emotionally, victims can feel frustrated, angry, and deeply vulnerable. Feelings of isolation frequently surface, along with anxiety and depression. This emotional turmoil can detrimentally affect a person’s everyday life, even to the extent of interfering with their relationships, careers, and other responsibilities. 

Physical impacts 

Physically, when appropriate diagnoses or treatments are delayed or ignored due to gaslighting, it can lead to worsening symptoms or unnecessarily prolonged suffering. In severe cases, it may even culminate in irreversible harm or fatal outcomes. Remember, the physical toll of long-term stress can also exacerbate existing conditions or pave the way for new health issues. 

The ripple effect 

The fallout of medical gaslighting doesn’t just stop at the individual level. The long-lasting effects can ripple out to family members, caregivers, and society at large. The financial burden of extended or incorrect treatments, the emotional toll on loved ones, and the overall loss of faith in the healthcare system – these are all potentially vast and devastating consequences. 

What are the solutions?

Educational initiatives 

Creating awareness about medical gaslighting begins with educating both healthcare practitioners and the general public. Medical professionals need to be aware of the unconscious biases they may have towards patients and their symptoms. They should be trained to listen actively, empathize, and respect the patient’s subjective experience. The general public, on the other hand, needs to be armed with information about medical gaslighting, so they can identify and respond to it if they ever experience it. 

Legislative measures 

Policy-makers have an important role in addressing medical gaslighting. This includes advocating for stricter legislation around it and setting penalties for practitioners who are found guilty of this act. Mandating diversity and sensitivity training in healthcare institutions could also be instrumental in preventing such occurrences. 

Improved communication 

Healthcare providers also need to work towards fostering an environment of open communication. This includes making dialogue with patients more transparent, validating their experiences, and practicing patient-centered medicine. Taking the time to thoroughly understand a patient’s symptoms could be key in avoiding incorrect diagnoses and speculation. 

Self-advocacy 

Equipping yourself with knowledge and believing in your experiences is perhaps the first step towards self-advocacy. It can be helpful to write down your symptoms, so you have a clear record to share with your doctor. Do not be afraid to ask questions, seek a second opinion, or request to see a specialist if you feel you are not being heard. You have every right to understand and participate actively in your own healthcare journey.

Key takeaways

Foremost, it’s critical to recognize that medical gaslighting is a real and pressing issue confronting the healthcare industry. Often, those affected aren’t fully aware it’s happening, making it even more destructive. Improved education and awareness about gaslighting—both for patients and medical professionals—can lead to significant improvements. 

We’ve discussed the complex reasons behind medical gaslighting, including systemic and institutional factors. These issues range from entrenched bias and discrimination to excessive workload and stress among health practitioners. However, understanding these factors doesn’t excuse such behavior, but it does give us a starting point for effecting change. 

The consequences of medical gaslighting are far-reaching, affecting not only the patient’s physical, emotional, and psychological health, but also rippling to impact their relationships, trust in medical care, and overall quality of life. These cannot be overlooked. 

There are indeed solutions at hand, from educational initiatives that raise awareness, legislative measures that punish unbecoming medical behavior, to promoting improved communication between patients and healthcare providers. Additionally, fostering a culture of self-advocacy for patients can empower them to demand the treatment they deserve. 

Sources

  • Sebring, J. C. H. (2021). Towards a sociological understanding of medical gaslighting in western health care. Sociology of Health and Illness, 43(9), 1951–1964. Https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.13367
  • Https://www.northwell.edu/katz-institute-for-womens-health/articles/gaslighting-in-womens-health
  • Https://creakyjoints.org/living-with-arthritis/mental-health/how-to-tell-if-your-doctor-is-gaslighting-you/
  • Https://theconversation.com/medical-gaslighting-when-conditions-turn-out-not-to-be-all-in-the-mind-209611
  • Https://www.businessinsider.com/guides/health/mental-health/medical-gaslighting
  • Https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/01/medical-gaslighting-warning-signs-and-how-to-advocate-for-yourself.html
  • Https://www.health.com/mind-body/is-your-doctor-gaslighting-you
  • Https://me-pedia.org/wiki/Medical_gaslighting
  • Https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8115954/
  • Https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/29/well/mind/medical-gaslighting.html
  • Https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20230120/medical-gaslighting-what-to-know

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Kimberly Langdon, M.D.

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