Medical gaslighting refers to a healthcare provider dismissing or questioning a patient’s concerns and making them believe their symptoms are imagined or exaggerated.
It is a type of psychological manipulation that happens between a person of authority (healthcare provider) and a person who relies on their expertise (patient). It can lead to misdiagnoses, delays in treatment, a worsening of the condition, and even death.
Gaslighting happens in the interactions between two (or more) people. Therefore, recognizing medical gaslighting requires you to pay attention to the language the medical professional is using and how you feel in their presence.
When you seek medical care, the expectation is that the provider will listen to your concerns, make an assessment based on their expertise, and recommend treatment options that are satisfactory. As a patient, you rely on the medical profession to take you seriously and to do the best they can to help you. If this is not the case, it could be gaslighting.
In This Article
How to recognize the signs of medical gaslighting
Here are some signs of medical gaslighting:
- Downplaying your complaints, for example, “it is not that bad” or “it is probably just stress”
- Making you feel silly about your concerns or like you are wasting their time
- Not listening to your concerns and/ or changing the subject
- Telling you, “it’s all in your head”
- Denying there is something wrong without making a proper assessment
- Blaming your physical health complaints on psychological problems but not offering help or a referral
- Doubting or questioning your memory, trustworthiness, or perception, for example, “are you sure that is how you feel?” or “you are overthinking it”
Example of medical gaslighting
A common example of medical gaslighting is women being told that their symptoms are due to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or anxiety. Another example is someone being told that their health problems are due to their weight and that losing weight will alleviate all of their concerns.
While it is possible that some concerns are due to anxiety or weight, the issue lies in the medical professional not taking the patient’s concerns seriously.
Instead of assessing the patient and looking for a possible cause of the problem, the professional dismisses the patient. This can lead to not receiving the required treatment and can thus have harmful consequences for the patient.
Medical gaslighting can include chest pains or cramps being labeled as panic attacks or patients being called “hypochondriacs”. It can also include people going to their health provider about feeling suicidal or struggling with their mental health, and the provider dismissing them and saying, for example, “just exercise more.”
A recent example of medical gaslighting is Long Covid, as reported in a 2022 review. There are a number of Covid-19 patients who went on to develop long-term symptoms, including brain fog, physical and mental fatigue, and debilitating weakness.
Some developed memory loss, impaired concentration, and mobility issues. Before Long Covid was recognized as a condition, patients felt they were not taken seriously by medical professionals and that their health concerns were dismissed.
These patients experienced prolonged stress from having to contend with not being heard and they did not receive treatment options, which exacerbated their condition. The patients “blame the experts who hold gatekeeping power over their medical care for producing a distorted version of [their] reality.”
This is important because medical gaslighting is more likely to occur when there is a power imbalance, such as between health professionals and patients.
Symptoms of Medical Gaslighting
As with other forms of gaslighting, you can often identify whether you are experiencing medical gaslighting by how the interactions with the medical professional make you feel.
In a best-case scenario, you would feel listened to and respected by the professional. You would leave their care feeling satisfied that they have considered every possibility and that they have assessed you thoroughly based on their expertise.
Experiencing medical gaslighting can make patients feel disappointed, disrespected, and concerned about the care they have received. However, the consequences of medical gaslighting are often worse and leave patients with long-term negative consequences, including;
- Anxiety and depression
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as intrusive memories and thoughts about the event, intense distress, and guilt or shame
- Severe self-doubt
- Feeling insecure and unsafe
Being dismissed by medical professionals despite experiencing concerning symptoms can make you persistently feel like there is something wrong with you.
It can leave you in a state of confusion because what you are experiencing is real but another person, an expert, is telling you that it is “not that bad” or that “it is nothing”. This might make you question your own sanity and sense of judgment.
What are the consequences of medical gaslighting?
The consequences of medical gaslighting can be severe. You might question your sense of reality, feel abandoned, and doubtful or suspicious. You might lose trust in the medical profession and no longer want to seek help, which will ultimately have negative consequences for your health. Other consequences include:
Feeling unwell or experiencing certain symptoms is worrying or even frightening, depending on what they are. When this experience is dismissed, it does not mean the symptoms disappear, and you are left feeling unsure of your perceptions and alone with your problem(s). This can be terrifying and cause significant distress.
If the medical professional is not listening to you or downplays your concerns, it is possible that you will not receive a diagnosis or be misdiagnosed. This means you are not getting treatment for the actual problem and might receive treatment for a condition you do not have.
Blaming physical symptoms on psychological problems is a common misdiagnosis. Other examples include being diagnosed with migraines when it is a stroke, or being diagnosed with indigestion when it is a heart attack.
Not being taken seriously or being told to “come back if it gets worse” can lead to a worsening of symptoms and in some cases, it can be fatal. Being treated disrespectfully may lead a patient to no longer seek medical help, which can exacerbate the problem and be costly for the individual as well as the healthcare system overall.
How to respond to medical gaslighting
If you experience a health professional dismissing your concerns, downplaying your experience, or questioning your perception, this is unprofessional and potentially abusive. For that reason, it is important that you respond assertively and ask the professional to take your concerns seriously.
It is helpful to keep track of your symptoms so that you can show them to your doctor. Include information about the symptoms you are experiencing, how often, for how long, and any potential triggers that might be leading to the symptoms.
If you present this data to your health professional, it will be harder for them to dismiss you. If they do dismiss you, request that they make a note of this in your medical record.
If you suspect your doctor is gaslighting you, write down when you visited the doctor and what their response to your concerns was in as much detail as possible. Seek the advice of an experienced lawyer who can help you to report it and if necessary, take legal action.
Another way to minimize the risk of being gaslit is to bring a friend or family member with you to the appointment who can support you and your concerns. They can act as a meditator and advocate during your appointment.
If you are unsatisfied with your doctor’s assessment, you can get a second opinion from another health professional. It is important that you have a good professional relationship with your doctor and that you trust them – if you are not satisfied, look for another doctor who will take your concerns seriously and treat you respectfully.
Who is most at risk of medical gaslighting and why?
Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone but women, Asian, and Black people are particularly affected.
Gaslighting is rooted in social inequalities and executed in relationships where there is a power imbalance. Placing more value on certain groups, biases, and other false beliefs lead to differences in how people are assessed and diagnosed by health professionals.
A study found that Black patients are more likely to be labeled as non-compliant or agitated, which likely contributes to health inequalities. Another study reported that Black patients are less likely to be treated for pain due to a false belief that they experience less pain than White people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White women. Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard explained “Basically, Black women are undervalued. They are not monitored as carefully as White women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed”.
Women in general have historically been labeled as irrational or “hysterical” by medical professionals. The (unconscious) bias that women are overly emotional leads to women not being taken seriously and their symptoms being dismissed as being anxiety-related or attention-seeking.
For example, a study showed that women with symptoms of a heart condition were more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental illness.
According to research published in Academic Emergency Medicine, women who went to the ER with severe stomach pain had to wait 33 percent longer to be seen than men with the same symptoms. Another study identified a gender bias in pain treatment.
In some cases, professional treatment decisions were based on women being “more used to” internal pain due to menstruation and childbirth or pain being “a natural characteristic of women’s bodies.”
Can you prevent medical gaslighting?
Anyone can become the victim of medical gaslighting, so here are some ways that could reduce the risk:
- Find a healthcare professional with good reviews. On your first visit, pay attention to how you feel and how they treat you. If they are not respectful and do not seem to listen or take you seriously, it might be better to find someone else
- Bring a friend or family member with you to your appointments, if possible
- Educate yourself on medical gaslighting and learn how to recognize it
- Approach your doctor assertively. They may have the qualification, but you are an expert on your own experience
- Write down and record your symptoms and interactions with healthcare professionals
Au, L., Capotescu, C., Eyal, G. & Finestone, G. (2022). Long covid and medical gaslighting: Dismissal, delayed diagnosis, and deferred treatment. SSM Qualitative Research in Health, 2.
Chen, E.H., Shofer, F.S., Dean, A.J., Hollander, J.E., Baxt, W.G., Robey, J.L., Sease, K.L. & Mills, A.M (2008). Gender disparity in analgesic treatment of emergency department patients with acute abdominal pain. Academic Emergency Medicine, 15(5): 414-8.
David, S.J. (2022). The enormous problem of medical gaslighting. MOJ Addiction Medicine and Therapy, 7 (1).
Lopez-Leon, S., Wegman-Ostrosky, T., Perelman, C., Sepulveda, R., Rebolledo, P.A., Cuapio, A. & Villapol, S. (2021). More than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 11 (1).
Maserejian, N.N., Link, C.L. Lutfey, K.L., Marceau, L.D. & McKinlay, J.B. (2009). Disparities in Physicians’ Interpretations of Heart Disease Symptoms by Patient Gender: Results of a Video Vignette Factorial Experiment. Journal of Women’s Health, 18 (10).
Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E. & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave Men” and “Emotional Women”: A Theory-Guided Literature Review on Gender Bias in Health Care and Gendered Norms towards Patients with Chronic Pain. Pain Research and Management.
Sun, M., Oliwa, T., Peek, M.E. & Tung, E.L. (2022). Negative Patient Descriptors: Documenting Racial Bias In The Electronic Health Record. Health Affairs, 41 (2).
Trawalter, S., Hoffman, K.M. & Waytz, A. (2016). Correction: Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain. PLOS ONE, 11(3).