What is Medical Gaslighting?

“Maybe it’s just all in my head?”

That was the question Isabella Rosario asked herself after unsuccessfully trying to get a diagnosis for her numerous debilitating symptoms for over a year-long period. These concerning symptoms included migraines, joint dislocations, chest pain, lightheadedness, pneumonia and more. When she first saw a doctor at her university clinic, and later, her GP, she was told what she was experiencing was due to stress related to her studies, and completely psychological in nature. Eventually, after seeing numerous specialists, she was diagnosed with two chronic health conditions – hypermobility spectrum disorder (HPD) and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). 

Isabella was fortunate to eventually get a diagnosis, but other chronic illness sufferers are not so lucky. Many medical professionals routinely dismiss their patients’ ailments and concerns – a phenomenon known as medical gaslighting. Eventually, patients who have been gaslit will begin to question their own sanity and wonder if their health problems are actually ‘real’ or just a figment of their own imagination.

According to the blog A Journey Through the Fog, medical gaslighting can take many forms, including:

  • Minimizing debilitating or dangerous symptoms. – “Your pain can’t be that bad
  • Blaming symptoms on mental illness. – “It’s all in your head” 
  • Assuming a diagnosis based on sex, race, identity, age, gender, ethnicity or weight. – “If you lost weight, your symptoms would disappear
  • Refusing to order important tests or imaging work. – “I know you don’t have [condition], I do not need an MRI to tell me this. I know how to do my job
  • Refusing to discuss the health issues with the patient. Berating patients for trying to self-diagnose. – “Who’s the doctor here, me or Google?” 

Throughout the course of my journey to being diagnosed with various autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses, including Sjogren’s Syndrome, Hidradenitis Suppurativa and Benign Fasciculation Syndrome, my symptoms were either minimized or completely discounted by medical professionals. As I detail in the blog post, When Your Doctor Doesn’t Believe You, when I first brought up joint pain in my hands to my GP at age 19, he accused me of ‘texting too much’ when in reality, I had undiagnosed Sjogren’s Syndrome that was quickly developing into Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

In another instance, I needed a referral to see a Rheumatologist. When the nurse checked me in and asked about the reason for the visit, she said, ‘How does someone your age need to see a Rheumatologist? Did you wear high heels too much in high school?’ This kind of comment is not only rude and uncalled for, but patronizing and dismissive as well. People of all ages can experience a myriad of health issues, and should be taken seriously.

Last year, a video posted by a nurse on the popular social media platform TikTok drew outrage among the chronic illness community. The video featured a nurse imitating a patient struggling to breathe, while the nurse refused to help. She then captioned the video with the words: “We know when y’all are faking’. The video prompted many chronic illness patients to respond recounting their own stories of medical gaslighting, using the hashtag #PatientsAreNotFaking.

According to healthline.com, women are more likely to have their pain described as ’emotional’ or psychological in nature. Meanwhile, patients of color are less likely to be thoroughly examined as compared to their white counterparts. This systemic sexism and racism in the healthcare industry was also pointed out by many using the same hashtag:

In order for patients to get the healthcare they need (and deserve), medical professionals need to take their patients seriously; and that includes listening to their experiences, being compassionate, and issuing the necessary examinations and other tests needed to get an accurate diagnosis. My hope is that if you’ve ever experienced medical gaslighting, that you remain assertive and find a healthcare team that will take the necessary action to diagnose and treat your illness.

Have you experienced medical gaslighting before? If so, comment below to share your experience.

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