Vulnerable populations are more likely to be gaslighted by medical personnel, studies show.
Medical gaslighting, the term given to a situation in which a patient feels as if their concerns are being dismissed, is fairly common. In fact, the New York Times recently reported on the subject and received nearly 3,000 comments from people who were sure they had experienced this at some point along the way. And this form of gaslighting is anything but benign. It has almost cost some patients their lives.
Studies have found that medical gaslighting affects vulnerable populations, including seniors, those who suffer with obesity and/or addictions, women, children, minorities and LGBTQ+ patients, more regularly than other populations. In general, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed than men and Black patients are more likely to receive negative descriptors such as “medication noncompliant” in their charts. These groups also tend to wait longer to be diagnosed, which can lead to life-threatening complications.
“Gaslighting is real; it happens all the time. Patients, and especially women, need to be aware of it,” said Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres, a professor of cardiology at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and co-author of the book “Heart Smarter for Women.”
There are certain signs to look out for, according to experts. These include listening for cues that a provider is being too short in a conversation, refusing to answer questions or refusing to take the time to discuss why they’ve offered a certain diagnosis, not ordering necessary labs or not listening when a patient asks for additional resources. Providers who are not gaslighting patients will always be willing to engage in pertinent care-related discussions and will be thorough in their treatment, even if strapped for time. They will also listen to the concerns of their patients, believing that the patient can best describe how they are feeling.
“I always tell my patients that they are the expert of their body,” said Dr. Nicole Mitchell, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. “We work together to figure out what’s happening and what we can do about it. It really should be a shared decision making.”
It is important for patients to keep their records and jot down any questions they want to bring along with them. It can also help to understand family medical history in advance. Bringing a support person who can be in the room is also a good idea. This person can essentially act as an extra set of eyes and ears.
“When people are ill, scared or anxious, it can facilitate brain freeze,” Dr. Mieres said. “We stop thinking, we don’t hear adequately, we don’t process information.” If a support person is present, this can help with facilitating important discussions.
If a doctor doesn’t appear to be listening, Dr. Mieres recommended that patients try saying something like, “Let’s hit the pause button here, because we have a disconnect. You’re not hearing what I’m saying. Let me start again.” She added that another route to take could be, “I’ve been having these symptoms for three months. Can you help me find what is wrong? What can we do to figure this out together?”
If patients feel too rushed during their visits or as if the doctor is steering them in the wrong direction, it is okay to switch providers until there is a good fit. The most important thing is to feel comfortable and confident that the doctor is providing appropriate and adequate care.