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What is Medical Gaslighting?

After months of brushing off your symptoms of brain fog and vaginal pain, you carve out precious time from your busy schedule for a doctor’s appointment. You finally meet your provider face to face, only to be told that the discomfort you’ve been feeling is “simply just what happens women as they age.” Do you…

A) Defend the validity of your pain with the vigor of a hardened lawyer.

B) Resign yourself to the fact that maybe your pain isn’t that big of a deal. After all, it’s not life-or-death, right?

For many women, this scenario is all too familiar. It has a name: Medical gaslighting.

While the term ‘gaslighting’ is commonly used in the context of a relationship, medical gaslighting refers to the experience of having one’s health concerns dismissed or trivialized by a medical professional, often on the basis that their symptoms are “all in their head.”

More and more women are sharing their stories of medical gaslighting and the serious repercussions of delayed diagnoses, leaving a massive, burning question in our minds: Why is it so difficult for women’s health concerns to be taken seriously?

Why does medical gaslighting occur?

As much as we’d love to name a single culprit, as with all things related to women’s health, the answer is complex. But, there are several clear components that uphold a medical system that enables medical gaslighting.

Although the days of hysteria and wandering wombs (yes, this was an actual theory) are in the past, there remains a wide discrepancy in our knowledge of women’s health compared to men’s health. In the U.S., this gap was boosted by the FDA’s exclusion of women of reproductive age from clinical trials from 1977-1993, effectively ensuring that decades of treatments were based on clinical trials catered to cisgender male bodies. Nearly 30 years have passed since the FDA ban was lifted, but women’s health research remains severely underfunded to this day.

When it comes to menopause specifically, the knowledge gap is alarming: a study from John’s Hopkins showed that only 1 in 5 OBGYN residents receive any formal training in menopause, and a recently published 25-year study further illustrates the serious impact of racial biases on Black women’s menopause experiences.

Medical gaslighting cannot simply be explained or excused through historical context–but this severe gap in knowledge, paired with a healthcare system with significant barriers to comprehensive care, creates environments in which women are routinely overlooked, dismissed, and misdiagnosed.

Even healthcare workers are not immune to the pervasive dismissal of women’s health concerns.

We spoke with Laura Stratte, RN, Elektra’s Operations and Programs Manager about her experience with medical gaslighting:

“When I first felt breast pain, I was in my 30s and in the middle of nursing school. Although I had no known family history of breast cancer, I knew in my gut that something just wasn’t right. But when I went to a doctor to express my concerns, she responded by asking me, “Are you depressed or stressed?”

Despite her initial dismissal, I was persistent. It took me six separate visits with three different doctors, demanding concrete answers, in order to get a mammogram. I was made to feel like a crazy person in order to get the medical support I needed and deserved. We found out that I did, indeed, have breast cancer.

After surviving cancer, I became a breast cancer nurse navigator to support women who were on similar journeys and continued to hear stories of women with late diagnoses due to medical gaslighting and a lack of proactive testing. Two young women in particular come to mind: one of them survived, and the other, sadly, did not.

As an RN, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve seen firsthand how anxiety can play a role in a woman’s perception of her health and have worked with patients who remained hyper-fixated, even after we’d done everything we could possibly do to help them reach a diagnosis. Those situations could be frustrating at times.

But, at the end of the day, there will always be a power differential between any medical professional and a patient, and it’s the medical professional’s responsibility to meet the patient where they are at, even if that means erring on the side of caution. If we can prevent a single misdiagnosis, it’s worth it.”

How can we combat medical gaslighting?

While we can’t single-handedly fix the systemic issue of medical gaslighting, there are ways we can advocate for our health and combat medical gaslighting:

1. Prepare for your appointment.

You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to defend your physical or mental symptoms in a doctor’s office. However, keeping track of your symptoms and a close log of any potential health triggers will be helpful to both you and your provider (our hot flash trigger tracker for inspiration). Also, jot down a physical shortlist of questions prior to your appointment. This will help you avoid that “oh, shoot!” moment in the parking lot afterwards. 

2. Find a board-certified specialist.

When you’re dealing with any of the 30+ symptoms of menopause, it’s important to go to a specialist who is trained in menopause care. The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) is considered the gold standard of menopause certification. You can schedule a Personalized Menopause Assessment or a Sexual Health Consultation with one of our NAMS-certified providers here to get personalized hormonal support.

3. Bring someone with you to your appointment.

Studies show that patients immediately forget 40-80% of medical information provided by healthcare practitioners during an appointment. 40-80%! If you are able to, bring a trusted person along with you to your appointment to help take notes, provide emotional support, and be your back-up in case you forget to ask any of your questions. 

4. Trust your gut.

Out of all of our tried-and-true tips, this one is perhaps the hardest one to follow. You are the best authority on what you are feeling in your body. If anyone tells you to endure your pain, or gives you answers that don’t sit right with you, you owe it to yourself to take control of your health.

Just remember: you deserve to feel educated, validated, and supported in menopause, and beyond.