What is medical gaslighting?
What Is Medical Gaslighting?
July 1, 2022

What Is Medical Gaslighting?

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What Is Medical Gaslighting?.
What Is Medical Gaslighting?

Have you ever felt that a doctor was telling you that your symptoms were all in your head? Or that things weren’t quite so bad as you were making them out to be? If you’re emphatically answering yes to those questions, then you’ve probably experienced medical gaslighting.

It can happen to anyone, but medical gaslighting—or when a doctor dismisses a patient’s symptoms—tends to target women and people of color. Women are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon during pregnancy and the postpartum period. As a former doula, I’ve seen firsthand how doctors can react dismissively to the concerns of pregnant folks and brand-new moms with the equivalent of a little pat on the head, which can feel confusing, insulting, enraging, and everything in between.

One of the best ways to fight medical gaslighting is to understand it. So, let’s dig into what it is, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

What is medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting is when a doctor blames a patient’s symptoms on psychological issues or writes them off entirely. Often, this is driven by sexist beliefs that women are irrational and ruled by their emotions. You can trace this phenomena back to the millennia-long diagnosis of hysteria, which acted as a catch-all for women’s unexplained symptoms, and which Freud ultimately adapted to blame physical problems on psychological issues. This has contributed “to the persistent distrust of women’s subjective reports of their own bodies,” writes Maya Dusenbery in Doing Harm.

Medical gaslighting is also compounded by race, gender identity and sexual orientation—any form of bias can warp a doctor’s response to their patients, leading to inadequate care.

Where’s the proof behind medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting is understudied, but consider the evidence that women are often underdiagnosed. Women with heart disease symptoms are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness than men with the same symptoms. They’re 33 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed for a stroke. Women also face a great likelihood of misdiagnosis for adrenal insufficiency and cancer.

There’s also proof of medical gaslighting in how doctors respond to pain: Take a 2008 study of visits to the emergency room for acute stomach pain, which found that women waited nearly 33 percent longer than men to see a doctor. Also, women are more likely than men to be given sedatives instead of painkillers for the same symptoms (in other words: they’re silenced instead of treated). Black people are less likely than white people to be prescribed pain medication, period.

What’s medical gaslighting have to do with pregnancy?

Look no further than the Black maternal mortality crisis. The fact that Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth can be blamed on many things, but racial bias is one of them, because it leads doctors to discount Black birthing people’s experiences and symptoms.

Consider the case of tennis star Serena Williams, who in 2018 wrote for Elle about fighting to have her symptoms taken seriously after giving birth. When she started to sound the alarm about her sudden coughing and breathlessness, a nurse told her, “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.” It turns out Williams was having a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.

Not all cases of medical gaslighting in pregnancy are so dire. It can show up with a doctor shrugging off a pregnant woman’s certainty of something being “off” or ignoring a laboring person stating that their pain is too much.

Pregnancy and parenthood can be filled with anxiety and unknowns. Sometimes we do worry about things that are just fine, but the right doctor will make you feel supported throughout all of that uncertainty, and they’ll listen to any concerns you have.

How to fight medical gaslighting

Medical gaslighting is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions. We need to, well, overhaul our entire healthcare system—more specifically, to make it prioritize patients. In the model of patient-centered care, doctors approach patients as whole human beings and invite them to collaborate in their own care. This helps address the huge power imbalance in doctor-patient relationships. We also have to raise awareness about how sexism and racism impact the care that doctors provide. Knowledge is power, but invariably the biases of the outside world show up in the doctor’s office. That’s why the fight against medical gaslighting has to be part of the broader movement toward social justice. This is a radical political undertaking that is as massive as it is necessary—and it won’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, we’re all just trying to get the care that we so desperately need. That’s why I think it’s important to arm ourselves as best we can, so I’ll leave you with a few tips for pushing back against medical gaslighting.

Share your concerns

If you don’t feel that you’re being taken seriously, you can tell your doctor just that. How they respond will tell you a lot about who they are as a provider—and their ability to handle criticism.

Ask for a second opinion

You can always ask for a second opinion—even in the middle of childbirth. This signals to your doctor that they aren’t addressing your concerns and it gives you the opportunity for a new set of eyes. Also: you can switch doctors at any point during pregnancy and even during labor.

Share the stats

If you’re struggling with pain and your doctor is discounting it, hit them with the facts on women waiting longer in the ER. For Black pregnant folks, you can bring up the maternal mortality rate. Try saying: “I know that Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth. How can we protect me from becoming another statistic?”

Learn about your body

Education is empowerment. That’s why we created a pregnancy and postpartum program, which gives birthing people the information they need to understand what’s going on with their bodies. We also recently launched Symptom Checker, a tool that lets you explore whatever’s going on with your body—from anxiety to hair loss to vaginal dryness to breast tenderness.

When you understand what’s going on with your body, you’re a better advocate for your own health.

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Erica Chidi is the co-founder and CEO of LOOM, a platform empowering women through sexual and reproductive health education. She is also a doula, health educator and the author of the Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood.

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