ODESSA, Texas (KMID/KPEJ) – For many, visiting the doctor is something that only happens as a medical emergency. But, for people with chronic issues, visiting a doctor can become a daunting task. Some health experts say medical gaslighting can compound this problem.

What is it?

The term “medical gaslighting” is used to describe patients who felt that their symptoms were arbitrarily dismissed as insignificant or labeled as primarily psychological by doctors. According to the New York Times, the term came from a play entitled “Gaslight,” in which a husband tries to drive his wife insane.

How do I know if it’s happening to me?

Here is a list of tell-tale signs that you may be experiencing Medical Gaslighting:

  • Interruptions – Are medical personnel interrupting you when you try to explain your symptoms? Frustration can set in if you are trying to resolve a medical issue that you are experiencing; but you keep getting cut off by the very people who should want to know more about those symptoms. This can result in a sense that your concerns are not “so serious” or that it is useless for you to try to explain your concerns.
  • Rushing – Do you feel rushed as you try to explain your symptoms? Adding to interruptions; rushing can limit you and you might not be able to describe or communicate your symptoms clearly. If you’ve ever left the doctor’s office and thought to yourself “I wish I had said that”, you’ve probably experienced interruptions and rushing.
  • Refusal to discuss symptoms – Are doctors/clinicians discussing and addressing your symptoms? At times, medical gaslighting will lead to a full explanation of your symptoms; but, your doctor is just jotting down notes or “listening”; but there is no actual conversation taking place addressing your symptoms. When this happens, you might leave the doctor’s office with more questions than answers. At the very least, at the end of your appointment, there should be a plan in place to address your symptoms.
  • Personal Biases/Social Constraints – Are you noticing underlying biases and social constructs such as racism, ableism, and misogyny from your providers? If you are a woman who has been to a doctor and asked for pain control medications for any procedure described as “pressure” or a “little pinch”, and you have been refused, you have experienced medical gaslighting. Medical professionals who are interested in caring for their patients will take their patients concerns about pain into account and will not allow their own biases to interfere with their treatment.
  • “It’s all in your head” – Have you been told that the only explanation for your symptoms is a psychological one? When a doctor decides that there is no other answer for your physical symptoms and is done trying to test you or diagnose your symptoms, it is common for the treating Physician to try and explain it away as a mental issue that you have conjured up.

Leana Gonzales is a prominent Real Estate Lender balancing her career, children and the relationship with her high school sweetheart of the last 26 years. In a statement to KMID/KPEJ she explained that early this year she went to the doctor for heart palpitations and trouble breathing. Her husband accompanied her to the appointment. After explaining her symptoms, the doctor suggested running a few tests. She then looked to Leana’s husband to see if he “had anything to add”.

Her husband, Johnny, explained that Leana had a very stressful job and that she was often anxious. At that point, Leana said the doctor dismissed her concerns without any further questions or exams and prescribed antidepressants and anxiety medications with no resolution to the initial complaint. Afterward, she decided to switch doctors and was able to find a remedy for the palpitations.

This type of gaslighting is more common place than we think. Female patients are statistically less likely to have a diagnosis for a chronic ailment and are more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than men.

In another scenario, a husband and wife who spoke to KMID/KPEJ, explained that they had to advocate for their father after he was being “ignored” by the VA. After his daughter wrote a letter to the VA concerning the lack of attention that was being provided to her father’s concerns, the hospital was able to come up with a solution. The VA is an example of an overtaxed medical facility with too many patients and not enough doctor’s. The result is a lack of follow through and a resignation by the patients that “this is just the way it is”. In the end, veterans are falling through the cracks and are not being treated or they are being treated with limited accountability by the system.

What to do if it’s happening to you:

The rule of thumb to remember: you are your own best advocate for your medical treatment. The moment you walk into a hospital, doctor’s office or emergency room; the people treating you work for you. You wouldn’t expect to go into a restaurant and order tacos; but allow the waitress to tell you that you don’t want tacos and allow her to bring you a burger instead.

If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned scenarios, stop the conversation. Address how you are feeling about the communication.

Example:

  • I am feeling like I can’t finish what I’m saying.
  • I feel like you are rushing me and I can’t organize my thoughts to explain my symptoms clearly.
  • I don’t believe you understand what I am trying to say or that you are addressing my symptoms.

The main takeaway should be that you are in charge of your own healthcare. Most medical facilities have Patient Care Advocates you can reach out to if you feel you are not being heard. And, if after trying to communicate your health concerns, you still feel like you are being mistreated, you should seek other medical opinions by requesting another doctor handle your case.

In an article titled “The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine”, Sarah Fraser, MSc MD CCFP says “Within the culture of medicine, gaslighting is a phenomenon I have both observed and experienced as a generalist. By recognizing gaslighting in medicine, this form of bullying can be brought to an end.”