Why medical gaslighting is a problem for women

Too often women’s health concerns are trivialised by doctors. Here is what medical gaslighting looks like and how to avoid it.

If you’ve been a victim of medical gaslighting you’re far from alone.

A term used to describe when medical professionals dismiss or invalidate a person’s symptoms, the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey 2021 found one in three women feel their health concerns have been dismissed by their GP.

The impact of medical gaslighting

One study found women’s pain is less likely to be treated with pain medication than men’s and women are more likely to be given sedative medication.

Another scholar wrote women’s pain is “viewed as more emotionally based and thus less credible”.

When it comes to the chronic gynaecological condition endometriosis, studies show that women experience “delegitimisation of their symptoms before, during and following diagnosis” reporting they are disbelieved by professionals or “fobbed off”.

And not only in the GPs office.

A US study looking at patient data in emergency departments, found that despite describing the same symptoms, women waited longer than men for treatment.

Gaslighting causes women to doubt symptoms

US author of the best-selling ‘The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness’ Meghan O’Rourke, who suffered for decades with chronic autoimmune disease, says doctors’ dismissive attitudes can lead women to doubt the signals their own body is sending them.

“Autoimmune diseases for example are overwhelmingly experienced by women — something like 80 per cent — and often by young women,” Meghan says.

“They come and they go and they’re not one-dimensional and so they defy the sorts of categorisation that the medical profession likes to make.

“Ninety per cent of the women I interviewed were encouraged to seek psychological treatment because ‘nothing was wrong with them’.”

Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Wollongong, Professor Patricia Davidson, a global leader in cardiac health, says all too often women feel like they’re making a fuss.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that women feel anxious about ‘complaining’, there’s a lack of confidence, they don’t want to waste a professional’s time,” she says.

“In my area of work for example, cardiovascular disease, it’s stereotyped as a man’s disease and yet it’s the number one killer of women.

“However, many women, when they do report symptoms, aren’t taken seriously.”

Ways to avoid medical gaslighting

1. Be assertive

Trust yourself and don’t downplay your pain or your symptoms, Professor Davidson says.

“There are feminised gender roles which mean women are expected to be kind, gentle and demure.

“We need to be confident in speaking up about our needs.”

2. Be persistent

Sydney GP Dr Michela Sorensen says it also pays to be persistent.

“A big part of it is that the symptoms might not be specific, you might be feeling bloating and tiredness but you’re rundown and busy and life is full on, a lot of factors come into play,” Dr Sorensen says.

“Insist that your healthcare professional listens, even if you’re repeating yourself.”

3. Find a doctor you trust

“Trust yourself and keep seeking the doctor or healthcare worker who is going to help you and who will give you the help you need and deserve,” Meghan advises.

“For a long time, I felt I shouldn’t look for new doctors and I lost years of my life.

“Be your own advocate.”

4. Ask for a second opinion

“I say to my patients’ day in and day out, let’s run tests because even if we don’t find an answer first up, we need to keep working until we get to the bottom of what it is and it may be that it is a combination of things,” Dr Sorensen says.

“A good doctor won’t be offended if you want to seek more opinions about your health.”

5. Stop putting yourself second

“All too often women put the health and wellbeing of others above themselves,” Professor Davidson says.

“When it comes to your health, you need to put yourself first.”

Written by Liz McGrath.