The term “gaslighting” has been buzzworthy on social media in recent years: In fact, Merriam-Webster named it the word of the year in 2022, when it saw a 1,740 percent increase in lookups.
You may have even experienced a form of it in the doctor’s office. In this case, it can be dangerous if it prevents you from getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. This is especially frustrating when you’re living with an “invisible” illness that may not always manifest symptoms a doctor can see or feel.
Here, we learn what medical gaslighting is, how to identify it, and ways you can advocate for yourself.
What Is Medical Gaslighting?
In a general sense, gaslighting refers to the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage, per Merriam-Webster.
The term “gaslighting” was inspired by the title of a 1938 play and the associated movie, in which a man tries to make his wife believe that she is going insane. He causes the house’s gas lights to dim — but tells his wife that they aren’t dimming and that she can’t rely on her perceptions.
That said, it’s been around for a long time. In the doctor’s office, you may experience medical gaslighting as a doctor not taking your concerns seriously or insinuating that your symptoms are in your head — which of course, can be incredibly discouraging.
“Medical gaslighting is the experience of patients feeling like their complaints are dismissed, discounted, or discredited,” says Kim Gorgens, PhD, Clinical Professor and Director of Continuing Education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. “The stakes are really high, particularly for folks with chronic health conditions.”
Who Is Most Likely to Experience Medical Gaslighting?
Multiple studies show that women and people of color are especially prone to experience medical gaslighting, per the Yale School of Medicine.
A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women experiencing chest pain wait in emergency rooms nearly 11 minutes longer than men before a health provider sees them. They were also less likely than men to be admitted to the hospital or kept under observation.
Meanwhile, the same study found that people of color with chest pain also waited longer to be seen by a physician than white adults with the same symptoms.
Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, but it’s more likely to occur with those who may not fit the societal norms of “a typical patient” — or who have less access to resources to get a proper diagnosis immediately.
Meanwhile, some doctors may not think certain populations can get diseases like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). (Read one man’s complicated journey to getting diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of IBD.)
“It becomes very easy in some ways for doctors to not just blame a patient, but deny the existence of an illness because someone is LGBTQ+, a woman, a person of color, or is poor,” says Chelsey Carter, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Yale School of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences), who has researched people living with ALS and developed the term anti-Black medical gaslighting. “Medical gaslighting is also imbued in a person’s own implicit biases, how they view the world, and how our society has been structured to ignore certain populations of people.”
In other words, medical gaslighting doesn’t just take place at an individual level — but also at a societal level.
What Are Signs of Medical Gaslighting?
If you experience the following, it’s possible you’re experiencing gaslighting:
- Your doctor interrupts you or doesn’t listen to you.
- The answers you receive don’t address your concerns.
- You feel ashamed after telling your doctor about your symptoms.
- You leave your appointment wondering if you are “imagining” your symptoms.
- Your doctor blames you for your symptoms.
“It probably will be in the feelings that it elicits,” says Dr. Gorgens. “If you leave feeling worse than when you walked in, if you feel badly about yourself, if you are made to feel ashamed in some way, those are the gut-level signs of gaslighting.”
On that note, if you are in a group that’s prone to medical gaslighting, tune into your intuition when considering if your doctor is gaslighting you — and remember that your feelings are valid. “You have to listen to your gut and if something doesn’t feel good,” says Dr. Carter. “That’s especially true for Black and brown people, because we want to hope for the best in humanity but need to pay attention to if something’s off and if it could be a form of anti-Black medical gaslighting.”
Why Does Medical Gaslighting Occur?
There are several reasons gaslighting can occur – and here we look at a few in detail.
Gaps in Research
Many groups — including women and people of color — have historically been underrepresented in medical research. It wasn’t required to include women and diverse racial and ethnic participants in clinical research funded by the National Institutes of Health until the 1990s, per Yale School of Medicine. And only in 2016 did government guidelines for those grants require that lab studies use female subjects.
Although these were strides in the right direction, a large portion of medical school instruction still relies on data that do not reflect the impacts sex and gender can have on health.
Rushed Doctor Visits
Limited time during appointments may also play a role. When a doctor is crunched for time during an appointment, they might not be as willing to hear out your symptoms. The average primary care exam is 18 minutes long, per a 2021 report in Medical Care.
“That time goes by quickly, but it really takes time to build repertoire and understand the kinds of symptoms associated with conditions like autoimmune illnesses,” says Dr. Gorgens. “These are the kind of illnesses that we usually build a diagnosis for by ruling out other diseases. The road to a diagnosis is often fraught with a really frustrating, dehumanizing experience for patients.”
A Fixed Biomedical Model
It could also be a case of your doctor not being willing to consider possibilities for symptoms outside of what they know.
“They sometimes have such a strong script to biomedicine and how we understand how medicine works, that it becomes really difficult for them to expand beyond the scope of that particular knowledge,” says Dr. Carter. “I’ve also seen it happen when patients ask for non-biomedical support.”
Lack of Knowledge
Finally, your doctor may simply not know the answer and resort to blaming or discounting you instead. “Medical gaslighting can happen because doctors aren’t able to admit they don’t know the answers or they don’t have a treatment,” adds Dr. Carter. “It can be a cop-out.”
What Should You Do If You Experience Medical Gaslighting?
If you think you’re experiencing gaslighting or simply want to avoid it in the first place, take the following steps to advocate for yourself:
- Bring someone with you to your appointments, if possible.
- Try relaying your concerns to another trusted confidant at the doctor’s office, like a nurse.
- If you need to, write yourself a note to remind yourself that you’re the expert of your own body.
- Get a second opinion from another doctor — and change providers if needed.
Remember, nobody knows your body or history better than you do. Trust yourself, keep advocating to get the care that you need, and know when to walk away from a provider who’s discrediting you.
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Banco D, et al. Sex and Race Differences in the Evaluation and Treatment of Young Adults Presenting to the Emergency Department With Chest Pain. Journal of the American Heart Association. May 4, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.121.024199.
The Health of Women Faces an Emergency. Yale School of Medicine. July 10, 2022. https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/the-health-of-women-faces-an-emergency/.
Interview with Chelsey Carter, PhD, assistant professor of public health at Yale School of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences).
Interview with Kim Gorgens, PhD, Clinical Professor and Director of Continuing Education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.
Neprash HT, et al. Measuring Primary Care Exam Length Using Electronic Health Record Data. Medical Care. January 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1097/MLR.0000000000001450.
Word of the Year 2022. Merriam-Webster. November 28, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year.