When Doctors Don’t Listen: Medical Gaslighting

Medical gaslighting can be the cause of medical malpractice when it causes harm to a patient. The term “gaslight” is based on the 1944 film noir of the same name. In Gaslight, a husband with sights on his wife’s fortune began to convince her that she was going crazy by turning down the gaslight (among other things) and denying it had happened. “Gaslighting” came to refer to the deliberate attempt to influence another’s perception of reality, deny the person’s experiences, and convince the victim that everything is the victim’s own fault or all in his or her head. 

The use of the term has since broadened to refer to unintentional, dismissive, or arrogant behavior that has the same effect, leaving the victim confused, distressed, and filled with self-doubt. In the case of medical gaslighting, it can also leave the victim with a serious medical condition that worsens because of being dismissed by a medical professional. 

Most of us defer to the perceived superior knowledge of a healthcare professional and can easily be convinced that what we feel is normal, or that we are exaggerating our symptoms. The doctor doesn’t necessarily have to say this; a careless attitude when the patient explains his symptoms can cause the patient to think it’s not really a big deal, even though it really feels like a big deal to the patient.

The most common victims of gaslighting

Doctors are busy, but they have a duty of care to give their full attention to the patient and treat that patient’s complaints seriously. Unfortunately, doctors and other health care professionals often show an unconscious bias to certain groups, who are more likely to be ignored and dismissed than others.

Studies show that women, persons of color, and those who are obese are more likely to be the victims of insufficient medical care or gaslighting:

  • Women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack and 33% more likely to be misdiagnosed after a stroke than men are
  • In a study comparing men and women who went to the ER with stomach pain, women were 33% more likely to wait longer than men and to receive less pain relief medication, despite similar symptoms
  • Women with reproductive health concerns are frequently dismissed and have treatment delayed, often for years, before problems are resolved; this is common for endometriosis
  • Children of color are more likely than white children to be diagnosed with disruptive behavior instead of ADHD
  • People of color and women are more likely to have their symptoms minimized or dismissed
  • Overweight and obese people experience patronizing or dismissive treatment from doctors, which can lead to delayed diagnosis as well as humiliation, causing the patient to hesitate to return for additional medical care
  • One study found that black patients were 2.5 times more likely to have negative descriptors in their medical charts than white patients, indicating an unconscious bias 

Examples of medical gaslighting

You may experience gaslighting in a variety of ways:

  • A nurse or receptionist acts dismissive on the phone, does not return your calls, or does not inform the doctor of your concerns
  • A medical professional dismisses your symptoms or writes them off as normal without explaining
  • The doctor doesn’t listen, seems distracted, doesn’t write anything down, doesn’t ask probing questions to understand more fully
  • The doctor interrupts or shuts you down when you’re speaking or when you have more to say; you feel like you have to argue with the doctor
  • The medical provider blames you for your condition; while lifestyle may cause some symptoms, such as smoking or being overworked, the symptoms still need to be addressed
  •  The doctor treats you like it’s “all in your head” – this is especially common for women; blamed on your period, on hysteria, anxiety, stress, imagination, PMS
  • The provider is unwilling to give you a referral or order additional tests

How to deal with gaslighting

You need to advocate for yourself. It’s your body, and these are your symptoms. Keep a journal of your symptoms, and when possible, include a value to rate what you are feeling – for instance, a scale of pain, or duration of symptoms. Include other details, such as the weather, the food you ate, your environment, etc. 

Write down questions you want to ask or statements you want to make. Take someone with you who can corroborate your experiences and support you. While it’s important to respect the doctor, he or she also has a duty to respect you and to provide you with the highest quality healthcare.

When a doctor does not fulfill his or her obligations to provide a “duty of care” and you sustain an injury from this negligence or gaslighting, you may be eligible for compensation. As a Florida personal injury lawyer, I am committed to helping Florida residents throughout the state receive just and fair compensation to help them cope with the injuries they have sustained through someone else’s negligence. Contact me at (954) 448-7288, 24/7 for a free consultation to see how I can help you. 

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