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Medical gaslighting is real, and here’s how to avoid it

Medical gaslighting may not be a term we are all familiar with, but it is something many of us have experienced first-hand. At the very least, many of us have heard friends or relatives complain of situations that may be instances of medical gaslighting.

In this Pacific Prime Latin America article, we’ll explain what medical gaslighting is, what the telltale signs are, how to avoid it, and what to do if you suspect you are being affected. As you’ll see, medical gaslighting is not uncommon, and sometimes we need to trust our gut feelings even if they go against what our doctor is telling us.

So what is medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting occurs when a doctor (or health care professional) dismisses a patient’s concerns or symptoms, and wrongly explains the patient’s illness or symptoms based on psychological factors.

Most of the time, doctors are not doing it on purpose. One thing we must remember, however, is that even highly trained professionals are human after all, and they are not perfect and are prone to biases and habits of the mind, just like the rest of us. If you still think your doctor is not to be challenged, we’ve got one staggering piece of statistics for you – doctors misdiagnose approximately one in seven patients.

Some groups are more likely to be affected by medical gaslighting than others – talk about life isn’t fair! To begin with, women and people of color are more likely to be affected. People with reproductive health problems are also at a higher risk of being misdiagnosed, for instance, both men’s and women’s reproductive health isn’t exactly a topic most people feel comfortable discussing. On average, young children and teenagers are also more likely to be affected – remember how we used to be told our growing pains would go away on their own?

Similarly, overweight people and people with obesity are more likely to be affected than the general population. Doctors commonly carry patronizing attitudes towards overweight patients, many of whom feel like they are not heard by their medical care provider.

But just because an instance of medical gaslighting is not intentional doesn’t make it harmless – a misdiagnosis can lead to ineffective or delayed treatments, and create mistrust which is among the most toxic elements in any doctor-patient relationship. So remember that while your pain and symptoms may or may not be all in your head, medical gaslighting certainly isn’t!

The telltale signs

In a nutshell, if you sense that your doctor is downplaying your symptoms or does not believe you, that should raise a red flag.

Doctors are supposed to be intent listeners who look for cues as they listen and ask sensible follow-up questions. They should make note as you describe your symptoms and recall their onset times, and be willing to discuss them with you. Where it is called for, your doctor should arrange further tests for you or refer you to a specialist.

At the same time, doctors are not supposed to make their patients feel intimidated in any way, or make the patient feel as though there were such a thing as a silly question. Although many doctors are pressed for time in real life, they should never jump to conclusions even before the patient has finished describing their symptoms and discomforts. Equally importantly, a doctor should never skip any part of a proper medical examination simply because your symptoms are stereotypical for you.

So if your doctor fails in any of these areas or, even worse, in multiple ways, speak up. Patients understandably tend to defer to their doctor particularly where medical judgments are concerned, but at the end of the day, you understand how you feel better than anybody else.

How to avoid being affected by medical gaslighting

Most obviously, if you suspect your doctor is not paying the attention your symptoms deserve, the first order of business would be to call it out gently yet firmly. A statement like “I don’t agree it’s all in my head” or “please let me finish” will likely do the trick and get your doctor to sit up and listen. It’s not easy to speak up, but it’s way better than the alternative – a possible misdiagnosis.

It also helps if you do some homework before your visit to the doctor’s office. Writing down the details of your symptoms, their onset times and how they developed over time is useful mainly for two reasons: it helps you give a more complete account of your symptoms (even if your doctor is a little intimidating in his body language), and your doctor is more likely to take you seriously if you take yourself seriously. In the same vein, you can prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor before your next visit. This will help you stay focused and composed.

If you can, find a trusted person to accompany you on your next visit. Not only can this person chip in, steer the conversation in your direction and remind you to ask the right questions, but the mere presence of this person will shift the power balance in your favor – sometimes that is the missing crucial element.

Things you can do if you suspect you are being affected

If you feel a second medical opinion is in order, go get one. You may feel a little uneasy about it at first because it smacks of distrust of your current doctor, but second opinions are so common in the field of medicine, no one should raise an eyebrow about it. As a matter of fact, your doctor may privately wish you to seek a second opinion – if he is wrong in his diagnosis anyway, what good does it do if the mistake is found out later rather than sooner?

As a last resort, switch doctors if you must. Again, you may not feel comfortable taking this step, especially if you have been seeing your current doctor for a long time and you have built up good rapport. Just remember that your health is infinitely more important than maintaining good relations with any doctor, and unpleasant as it may be, doctors are used to patients moving on now and then.

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime Latin America
Martin is a writer and translator with over 10 years of experience. He writes articles and blog posts, creates infographics and videos, translates between Chinese and English, and more. Skilled at explaining complicated concepts in layman’s terms, Martin believes the gold standard of translation is attained when the translated text is not only accurate, but also reads like an original text. Martin holds a degree in Economics from the University of London, UK.

Since joining Pacific Prime, Martin has become even more aware of the gap between the true value of insurance products and most people’s appreciation of it, and developed a passion for demystifying and simplifying matters, so that more people get the protection they need at a cost they can easily afford.

In his free time, Martin attends concerts of various genres, and plays the violin with piano accompaniment he pre-recorded himself or played live by his niece.
Martin Lee