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Signs You're Being Medically Gaslit

What to know about medical gaslighting.

If you've ever been to the doctor and felt like your symptoms were quickly minimized as minor or nonexistent, you're not alone. Medical gaslighting is real and it happens more often than you think. "Medical gaslighting is when a physician or healthcare provider downplays a patient's concerns or dismisses physical symptoms as being mainly psychological," Jenneh Rishe, RN, author of Part of You, Not All of You and patient advocate explains. The results of a physician not taking a patient seriously can have devastating effects, which almost happened to Rishe herself. The Los Angeles based nurse needed heart surgery, but was told she was fine. "I was basically having mini-heart attacks, whenever I was having chest pain," she told the New York Times. She knew something was wrong even though she was told otherwise, so she persisted, found a doctor who listened to her and had a life-saving operation. Rishe explains to us signs that you're being medically gaslit and what to do about it. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Medical Gaslighting Happens

patient speaking with doctor

Rishe says, "Medical gaslighting has likely existed for a while, we just didn't have the language to describe what was happening. I think it happens mostly when patients present with symptoms that a doctor cannot explain by traditional diagnostic tests, like imaging and labs. I believe traditional western medicine has a difficult time accepting and treating diseases that are not cookie cutter, are complex, or don't fit perfectly into a specific diagnostic criteria. A 'treat the patient, not the test' approach, and accepting that in medicine we still have limitations to fully understanding the human body, could help combat the frequency of patients experiencing medical gaslighting."

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Who Does Medical Gaslighting Happen to the Most and Why

patient in robe sitting on table at doctor's office

According to Rishe, "Women are largely affected by medical gaslighting, likely due to gender bias in medicine. This study showed that women who present to the ER with abdominal pain were less likely to get pain medicine than a man who presented with the same symptoms and the same amount of pain. Diseases such as endometriosis, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, and fibromyalgia which generally affect women are more prone to being attributed to hormones, stress, and emotions. Historically, women in pain were considered hysterical. That is a stigma that still exists today." 

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Signs You're Being Medically Gaslit

doctor in white coat is showing palms

Rishe ststates, "Medical gaslighting may look like:

  • A doctor dismisses your symptoms completely.
  • A doctor accuses you of being 'too sensitive' or overreacting over a warranted issue.
  • A doctor questions your memory or account of an incident.
  • A doctor blames your physical symptoms on a psychological factor."

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What to Do About Medical Gaslighting

Male doctor and his patient shaking hands in the hospital.

"If you feel like you are being medically gaslit, you can try to have a dialogue with your doctor about how you're feeling," shares Rishe. "Asking questions and advocating for yourself helps you to be a collaborator in your care, not just a passive participant. If this fails, you are always welcome to get a second opinion from another doctor. You should never feel forced to stay in a patient-doctor relationship that leaves you feeling uneasy or unheard." 

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How to Be Your Own Expert

Stethoscope lying on patient medical history form. Therapist working table. Healthcare and medical concept

Rishe emphasizes, "Self advocacy has become an integral part of being a patient. You can do this by being as prepared for your interactions with your doctor as possible. Things like keeping a detailed account of your symptoms, therapies, medications you've tried, and things that may trigger your symptoms can help create a bigger picture for your doctor. Doctor's appointments can be stressful and anxiety inducing, so taking notes during your appointment that you can review at a later time can help ease the pressure of an appointment. Consider preparing a list of questions you have for your doctor so that the conversation doesn't get derailed. Lastly, learn as much as you can about your disease or condition so that you can make informed decisions about your care." 

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Medical Gaslighting and Long COVID

Doctor and covid-19 infected patient in bed in hospital.

"It is estimated that 10-30% of patients might experience Long COVID, and we are still actively learning about its effects on the body through ongoing research," Rishe reveals. "There have been many anecdotal accounts of patients who have Long- COVID being medically gaslit. Long COVID falls into that category of diseases that are difficult to explain, doesn't have clear diagnostic criteria, and has so much unknown and uncertainty around it. This is a perfect storm for these patients to experience medical gaslighting."

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Keep Working Until You're Heard

Mature woman with her doctor in ambulance talking about healthcare

Rishe says, "Being medically gaslit can leave you feeling unsure of yourself. I'd like to remind patients that you are an expert on your own body. No one knows your body better than you do. Trust your gut if you feel like something is wrong, and keep fighting until you feel heard."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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