Medical Gaslighting: Definition, Signs, Examples & How to Respond

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“Medical gaslighting” is something that has been happening for a long time, yet it is only recently that the general public has become more aware of the practice and the adverse impact on their well-being.

You and I may have been a victim of this form of psychological manipulation by a healthcare provider and didn’t even know it.

This isn’t something patients usually recognize unless they know how to spot it. Gaslighting strategies are subtle and hidden in small details that are easy to miss even for detail-oriented people. So, there’s no need to blame yourself if you realize you were a target of the insidious act by your doctor.

Here’s a list of what’s ahead:

  • What is gaslighting in a medical setting?
  • Why do people gaslight you?
  • Why gaslighting is harmful and the effects
  • The signs of medical gaslighting
  • How to handle medical gaslighting step by step

Rest assured, you will leave a lot more informed and confident about handling gaslighting in the future.

What Is Medical Gaslighting?

“Gaslighting,” is a term used in psychology to refer to a practice where a person (the ‘gaslighter’) tricks or manipulates another (the ‘target’ or ‘gaslightee’) into questioning their own reality. When this form of emotional manipulation is used by doctors and other health professionals, it is called medical gaslighting.

Stacey E. RosenSenior Vice President of Northwell Health’s Katz Institute for Women’s Health told CNBC gaslighting generally happens “when concerns about your healthcare are being dismissed, they’re not heard and they are minimized.”

The ‘dismissing’ and ‘minimizing’ gaslighting methods in the doctor-patient relationship line up with those used in everyday relationships. For example, between romantic partners, family members, and boss and employees.

Gaslighters use other manipulation methods, such as skillfully crafted statements that create self-doubt. They tend to say things that amount to denying your reality. In this case, a medical gaslighter may cause you to question whether you’re really sick, mentally stable, or deserving of medical attention.

Where Did the Term ‘Gaslight’ Come From?

The term comes from the 1938 film, Gaslight. The movie was about a husband who caused his new wife to doubt her own sanity by persistently denying he was dimming the gas lamp in the home.

He used the manipulative tactic to make her believe she was going crazy and get her thrown into a psychiatric hospital. The end goal was to steal her inheritance after she becomes mentally unfit to handle her own estate.

What Makes Someone Gaslight You?

It’s helpful to note that narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths are emotional and abusive manipulators who are prone to gaslighting others. Why do they do it and, more so, why would a doctor or nurse gaslight their own patients?

A strong need for dominating and controlling others is the core reason for gaslighting.

Gaslighters are typically people with some level of power or authority, such as a manager, parent, teacher, spiritual leader, or financial provider in a relationship.

Right away, you may notice the power imbalance. Gaslighters take advantage of that power inequity. They tend to single out people who they perceive to be weak or vulnerable and easy to exploit.

In a professional doctor-patient relationship, there’s an imbalance of power. One is a medical expert. The other is someone who’s somewhat vulnerable due to an illness or sees themselves as the weaker party.

The patient becomes vulnerable by placing their faith solely in the doctor’s ability to help them recover. Wanting reassurance from the doctor that everything will be okay also causes vulnerability. Unfortunately, some doctors misuse their position of power and end up gaslighting their patients.

Why Is Medical Gaslighting Harmful?

Gaslighting, in any setting, is classified as a form of emotional abuse and bullying because the mental effects are similar to those seen in classic emotional abuse. More significantly, practicing it in the medical profession can lead to serious health consequences for patients.

For example, telling a patient they’re not sick, because the doctor is lazy to perform tests or is biased–gender or racial biases. Women and people of color are more commonly the targets of medical gaslighting. This is according to a 2021 research by the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

Here’s the thing. We tend to trust healthcare professionals because they have the medical expertise to guide and help us. We, therefore, expect them to give us accurate information and have our best interests at heart. The expectation aligns with their oath of ethics to act in the best interest of patients.

Patients rely on the expertise of health providers and could suffer harm if they withhold critical health information. Similarly, if they misdiagnose a condition due to bias or a lack of care. The error can lead to treatment delays or receiving the wrong treatment.

Harm can be caused whether or not the medical professional is aware of what they’re doing. In terms of the mental effects of gaslighting, the patient may be impacted just the same regardless of if the health specialist is engaging in intentional or unconscious gaslighting.

Lawyers say this type of unprofessional behavior borderlines medical malpractice and medical negligence.

6 Signs of Medical Gaslighting (with Examples)

If you’re concerned about or experienced medical gaslighting and want to avoid it in the future, here are six signs to look for.

#1. Trivializing Your Illness or Health Concerns

A doctor may persistently dismiss your symptoms as nothing serious. They may say something like “You’re just overthinking things.” 

To appease you, they may send you home with a prescription for first-line treatment, such as painkillers. However, you may leave wondering if you’re imagining things, thinking the doctor disbelieved you, or feeling as if your concerns aren’t valid.

EXAMPLE: A patient who had genuine concerns about lower back pain is told “The pain is all in your head.” The patient returns to their primary care provider several times with the same complaint. However, they’re sent away each time, without receiving a diagnosis of what’s causing their symptoms.

The patient later finds out from another doctor that they have a herniated disc, a chronic spinal condition. By then, the disc had deteriorated to the point where the only effective treatment was back surgery.

By trivializing their medical condition, the doctor prevented the patient from getting an early diagnosis. During this period, the patient continued to suffer from pain and other symptoms. The denial of proper medical care resulted in the patient needing expensive and invasive surgical treatment.

#2. Implying That You’re Lying

Doctors are trained not to prescribe medication unless they are certain the patient is ill and needs treatment. The rule is in place to protect medication from getting into the hands of people who abuse prescription drugs.

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Biases and stereotypes are also used to avoid further investigating and diagnosing your symptoms.

For example, research found some patients exaggerate pain levels to get opioid painkillers. Opioids are a class of controlled narcotic drugs that can cause dependency or addiction if misused.

As a result, some doctors are distrustful of patients. They are suspicious of whether the patient is honest about their symptoms or their severity. The situation creates a problem for patients with genuine health problems, but who are stereotyped in this way by medical professionals.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say you encounter such a doctor, hoping you can get a diagnosis for severe pain. Instead of doing a full medical evaluation, you’re told “I see a lot of patients who believe their pain level is higher than it is. By the way, nothing is wrong with you. You do know misusing prescription medication is illegal, right?” 

Immediately, you are dismissed and misjudged as dishonest because of the doctor’s race or gender bias or their general distrust of patients.

#3. Blaming You for Your Health Problem

Gaslighters tend to shift the blame to you to make you feel ashamed or guilty. A doctor may do so if they’re insecure about their skills and abilities as a medical professional.

Blaming you for your illness is essentially a cover-up. They’re hoping to avoid responsibility if they misdiagnose you or provide the wrong treatment.

EXAMPLE: You visit your doctor for knee pain. They merely ask you a few questions about your medical history and lifestyle habits before deciding the cause. “It’s either your weight or poor posture that is responsible for your pain,” says the doctor.

A list of other things can cause knee pain. Common causes include an injury from a fall or accident, joint inflammation, and arthritis. You know something is wrong with your knee. Instead, you get gaslighted and are left feeling silly, confused, and insecure about your body image.

Here’s why this is a classic case of gaslighting. 30.7% of Americans are overweight (according to research), but does every one of these people have knee pain? No. I’m overweight, although not obese, based on a Body Mass Index (BMI) check. Yet, I don’t suffer from knee pain.

#4. Ignoring A Medical Condition Based on Your Age

This gaslighting approach is similar to dismissing or downplaying your symptoms. However, the medical professional uses your age or gender to avoid listening to your concerns.

Biases and stereotypes are also used to avoid further investigating and diagnosing your symptoms.

EXAMPLE: You’ve been experiencing a sharp sticking sensation in the region of your heart for the past few days. You rushed to your doctor, thinking you may have a heart-related condition. Instead of showing concern, they laugh it off. They also added, “You’re too young to have symptoms of a heart problem. You have nothing to worry about.”

Here’s a dose of reality. I have a schoolmate who died younger than the average age for a heart attack. It wasn’t his age that was a risk factor. He was excessively overweight most of his life.

You could get gaslighted in a similar way by being told, “That’s normal for your age.” In other words, you should accept the symptoms as part of aging and do nothing about it.

#5. Invalidating Your Health Concerns Using Your Gender

Instead of outright saying you’re wrong about something, a gaslighter or narcissist may invalidate your thought, memory, or opinion. Invalidating someone is often done to make them feel weak or out of control of the situation.

In a medical setting, a male healthcare provider may use invalidation methods on women. If he’s a narcissist, he may gaslight female patients if he perceives them as weak or lacks respect for women.

Dr. Stephanie McNally, MD., Obstetrician/Gynecologist, noted that some physicians are quick to tell women they’re feeling sick because of their hormones. They do so without medical evidence to make this conclusion.

EXAMPLE: Your doctor might cause you to feel your concerns about signs of a heart attack are unfounded. Perhaps your curiosity stems from having a family history of heart disease.

The doctor may say the condition you’re concerned about doesn’t normally affect women, mostly men. It’s as if you’re supposed to feel relieved. Women are at risk of a heart attack regardless of age, even if the risk is lower.

A diligent doctor will take the time to discuss the risk factors, such as your genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle habits, that could impact your heart health.

#6. Blaming Your Condition On A Mental Illness

Why does this example remind me of gaslighting in interpersonal relationships where the manipulator tells you ‘You’re crazy!” or “You should see a therapist.” Right…it was my ex's favorite gaslighting phrase.

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Invalidating someone is often done to make them feel weak or out of control of the situation.

Usually, the individual isn't certified to diagnose your mental state. Patients can have a similar experience in a medical setting, although the approach may be more subtle.

EXAMPLE: Telling you something “You’re just anxious or depressed. Why don’t you go home and relax?” By implying something is wrong with your mental health, they may overlook a serious medical condition.

Doctors are supposed to work with patients to figure out what’s wrong even though they are the experts. They should carefully consider your medical complaints and conduct tests to rule out or confirm one or more causes. Hastily blaming your physical symptoms on mental illness is a harmful practice.

The conduct may be unethical if the doctor isn’t a mental health specialist. The proper and ethical thing to do is to refer you to a psychiatrist for a mental health evaluation. Psychiatrists are trained to diagnose mental conditions, not general physicians or medical assistants.

How to Deal with Medical Gaslighting in 7 Steps

According to domestic abuse experts, gaslighting is about gaining or maintaining power through coercive control by making the target feel confused, insecure, and mentally unstable. The perpetrator, typically someone in a position of power, will say things to cause you to question your memory, judgment, ability to decide for yourself, and your sanity.

The technique is usually subtle and gradual, but over time can distort your self-image. It is the indirect approach that makes it so much more dangerous than overt emotional abuse. Some patients may feel worthless, anxious, or depressed after interacting with a gaslighting medical professional. Those are just some of the effects of experiencing mind manipulation.

Fortunately, you can equip yourself to handle the situation the next time you’re confronted with medical gaslighting. Here is a 7-step process that can help you manage the situation and come out feeling confident instead of doubtful and hopeless.

STEP 1. Educate Yourself About Your Health Condition

When you have knowledge and awareness of your medical condition, it’s difficult for someone to misguide you. You owe it to yourself to do your own research on your medical condition.

Learn about the causes, symptoms, intensity, triggers, and treatments. That way, you can ask the right questions and get accurate answers.

By arming yourself with the facts, you’re able to tell if what the physician says conflicts with what you know. Remember a misdiagnosis can make your condition worse.

To be honest, I ask a lot of questions and request detailed explanations from my doctors. They probably find me quite irritating. However, as patients paying for medical services, we have the right to ask as many questions as possible and get answers.

So, don’t be afraid to question your doctor. They need you as much as you need them. Advocate for yourself and get the clarity you need to reduce worry and anxiety about your health.

STEP 2. Keep Notes

Arm yourself with a notepad and a journal for note-taking during healthcare visits. Jot down important things your doctor says during your appointment. Use the opportunity to ask questions and get more details about things you don’t understand. Make a note of the answers to your questions.

I recommend using a health journal or diary to keep track of your clinic visits and what your doctor said. Use the journal to write down your symptoms, medications you’re taking, and any side effects or changes in health. Also, keep photographs of injuries and lab results together with your journal.

At your next appointment, listen keenly to your doctor and compare the information with your journal. This way, you’re able to tell if your doctor is changing details or inserting new details to cover up any previous misinformation. You’ll also have proof of anything they deny saying.

STEP 3. Bring Someone to Your Appointment

Going to the doctor can create some level of anxiety for many people. Some patients have a fear of doctors (iatrophobia (eye-AT-rah-FO-bee-ah). Others feel insecure about doing a physical exam. All of this is normal.

However, nervousness during your visit can prevent you from listening and processing information as you would when you’re relaxed.

Bringing a trusted friend or family member to the appointment may help you remain calm and confident. You’ll have someone to vouch for you, especially if your symptoms are not obvious.

This person is also a witness who can confirm what was said and done during your appointment. They can provide emotional support and intervene on your behalf if they notice the medical professional isn’t following up on your questions or concerns.

Do remember to call ahead and ask if you’re allowed to bring a third party to your appointment. It’s helpful to fine-tune what role your companion will play at the doctor’s office. For example, will you task them with taking notes only or are they allowed to remain in the room during an intrusive physical exam?

STEP 4. Speak Up

This step is very important if you recognize the healthcare specialist is brushing you off. Similarly, if they’re talking down to you while treating other patients with more respect and care.

They may not recognize their discriminatory behavior. You may have to call the misconduct to their attention. Hopefully, they apologize and provide you with the quality medical care and services you deserve.

Similarly, advocate for yourself and let your healthcare provider know what they’re telling you and what you know isn’t adding up. It might catch them by surprise. They may not like that you’re questioning their expertise as well.

Of course, they’re the experts, but you are the patient and you know better than anyone else how you’re feeling health wise. 

You are the expert of your own body and it’s necessary for them to listen to you. That way, you can work as a team to determine a medical solution that is suitable and safe for you.

STEP 5. Get A Second Opinion From Another Physician

As a patient paying for medical services, you have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. You also have the power to determine who helps manage your health. By that I mean you can pick and choose a doctor until you find one that is right for you.

If you feel overlooked or taken for granted by a doctor who’s gaslighting you, consider getting a second, third, or fourth opinion from another medical expert.

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Finding a primary care physician who is trustworthy and compassionate might assist in an overall positive healthcare experience.

You may find out something new about your health or that you were diagnosed with a condition you don’t have. You may not have made the discovery if you wholeheartedly trusted the previous doctor or never questioned their findings.

Here’s a startling fact. A review of research data (PDF) found that approximately 12 million adults are misdiagnosed in the United States every year. About 50% of those errors could potentially be harmful, especially for patients with chronic or terminal illnesses. With more diligence, doctors can minimize such errors.

STEP 6. File A Complaint

If you feel you’re a victim of medical gaslighting by a doctor or medical staff, you can consider filing a complaint to a higher authority. Appealing to the hospital administration or a watchdog agency may be the next step to take if the staff in question refuses to listen to your complaint.

You may have a solid case if you give them a chance for a fair hearing but they’re avoiding a conversation. The doctor’s supervisor, patient advocacy staff, or licensing board are other entities that can help address the problem.

Gaslighting is emotional abuse and a form of bullying. Don’t stay silent or tolerate abuse. By reporting the matter, you’ll protect not only yourself but also other patients. Besides, medical professionals need to be held accountable for their conduct.

Dr. Nicole Mitchell, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Obstetrics and Gynecology Departmenat the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California has a piece of advice for patients. She suggests filing a complaint with the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Dr. Mitchell emphasized that “Any instances of abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, delaying diagnoses — those are reportable events that providers need to know about.” The OBGY provided the advice via The New York Times.

STEP 7. Locate An Empathic Healthcare Provider Who Takes You Seriously

Like anyone else, a doctor could be a manipulative narcissist or someone who is negligent in their duty of care to patients. They could also lack the level of emotional intelligence needed to show empathy.

With this in mind, finding a primary care physician who is trustworthy and compassionate might assist in an overall positive healthcare experience.

If possible, stick to one trusted physician. Over time, they’ll become familiar with your medical history and health concerns. They’re also likely to be better equipped to provide the medical services you need.

Empathic medical providers take the time to actively listen to their patient’s concerns. They are typically approachable and patient and try their best to explain their findings/diagnoses in detail.

Note: Above all, trust yourself. Trust your own feelings and intuition. Having self-trust is important in light of the fact that gaslighting causes self-doubt and lowers your self-esteem. If you don’t take these steps for handling medical gaslighting, you’ll likely feel powerless against the gaslighter.

Final Thoughts on Medical Gaslighting

Having a medical degree, training, and expertise doesn’t prevent medical professionals from engaging in harmful conduct toward patients.

Of course, you’re trusting the individual on the belief that they know best. Unfortunately, it may very well be someone who lacks empathy. They may not even realize the negative effect their statements and conduct have on patients.

Needless to say, unconscious gaslighting isn’t a defense. Your physical and mental health is at risk! By calling out and reporting gaslighting, you’ll protect your health, safety, and well-being. Continue educating yourself on the topic, starting with 5 Types of Gaslighting You Might Encounter (with Examples).

And if you're looking for more resources on gaslighting , be sure to check out these blog posts:

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