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What Is Medical Gaslighting?

If you have ever felt dismissed by a doctor, you may have experienced a type of bias (prejudice) called medical gaslighting. Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, but it most often happens to people in economically or socially disadvantaged groups. It can lead to missed, delayed, or incorrect diagnosis of an illness.

What is gaslighting?

The term "gaslighting" comes from a play-turned-movie called Gaslight about a husband's attempt to convince his wife that she is insane. He does this, in part, by dimming their gas-powered lights and then denying it. Today, gaslighting is a term for mental abuse. It is when a person in power manipulates someone else into doubting their own judgment.1,2

Gaslighting in the medical field

When doctors minimize or dismiss someone's health symptoms, it is known as "medical gaslighting." Many women have reported facing this harmful behavior from their healthcare provider. It also happens to people in other disadvantaged groups. It may result from bias based on:3,4

  • Race
  • Illness
  • Physical or mental ability
  • Weight
  • Sexual or gender orientation

Researchers who have studied medical gaslighting say the dismissal of real health concerns is a way to control the behavior of people in these disadvantaged groups.3,4

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The history of medical gaslighting

Doctors have long suggested that some people's health symptoms were "all in their head." For women, this idea is rooted in an outdated and debunked medical concept called "hysteria," which comes from the Greek word for uterus. Doctors often dismissed women and diagnosed them as having emotional problems caused by their uteruses.3,4

How medical gaslighting affects diagnosis

When a doctor dismisses someone's symptoms, it can lead to delayed or wrong diagnoses. Multiple studies prove this.5-7

A 2019 study found that doctors' negative attitudes caused them to dismiss or misdiagnose the symptoms of more than half of people with chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. In these cases, doctors most often blamed the symptoms on psychological factors such as depression, anxiety, stress, or trauma. Women in the study reported higher rates of "disbelief" and "insensitivity" from doctors than men did.5

A 2021 study found differences in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women compared to men. Women are often diagnosed later or given less treatment than men, which leads to worse health outcomes and higher death rates. The study identified bias based on gender as one cause of the differences.6

Medical gaslighting may also inform how doctors describe people with medical conditions. Researchers analyzed over 40,000 health record notes for negative words or phrases like "resistant" or "non-compliant." The results show that Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to have at least one negative descriptor in their medical records.7

These types of bias can delay the delivery of needed health services. Doctors may not order the proper diagnostic screening, or patients may not feel comfortable seeking treatment.7

Spotting medical gaslighting

So how do you know if a healthcare professional is gaslighting you? Signs might include:8,9

  • You feel dismissed. Your doctor brushes aside your concerns or opinions. Or they suggest that hormones, stress, or aging are causing your symptoms. While these things can cause health problems, some doctors blame them without considering other causes or offering solutions.
  • You are not allowed to speak. Your doctor frequently interrupts you or does not listen to what you say.
  • Your doctor talks down to you. Your doctor is condescending, saying or implying that your concerns are "all in your head."
  • Your doctor tries to sway you. Your doctor tries to make you believe that their skill or knowledge is more important than your lived experience.

Becoming your own health advocate

You may feel powerless to speak up about matters related to your health. After all, your doctor is the expert. It is often easier to defer to them. But there are ways to push back against medical gaslighting.

Keep a log of your symptoms, and share them with your doctor. If they do not listen to you or dismiss your symptoms, get a second opinion from a different doctor. You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist.9

If you ask for a test and your doctor refuses, ask them to record the request in your chart and why they decided against the test. If you and your doctor continue to disagree about how to proceed, you may need to find a different doctor. Take your records with you to discuss with your new doctor.9

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