Table of Contents
- “Medical gaslighting” can include doctors ignoring patients’ symptoms or denying them tests.
- Research shows Black people and women are more likely to experience medical gaslighting.
- Some victims of medical gaslighting have gone months or years without a proper diagnosis.
When Emma Zaks, a SoulCycle instructor, was 33, she woke up one morning with double vision and a wayward eyeball. The stomach pains she’d felt the night before were still there too.
At the hospital, though, doctors discharged her with steroids and no explanation, even though her medical history was worrisome: She’d been in and out of the hospital for months with vomit-inducing stomach pains, Insider previously reported.
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I had pushed harder for more answers, but who was I to question these doctors? I hate confrontation and wanted to be a ‘good patient’ who was liked,” she wrote for Style of Sport in 2017.
Zaks eventually learned she had an autoimmune condition that had caused both stomach pains and a mini-stroke, which affected her vision. She was told she’d never see straight without an eye patch again. Fortunately, thanks to Zaks’ persistence in seeking a third opinion, that turned out not to be true.
Patients like Zaks are coming forward with their experiences of medical gaslighting — when medical professionals dismiss a person’s symptoms, deny tests or treatments, and ultimately misdiagnose them. The experience, according to reports and research, is more common in Black people, women, and patients with obesity.
People who have experienced medical gaslighting say they’ve grown to distrust doctors after months or years of pain, immobility, and misdiagnoses.
Marginalized patients are more likely to be victims of medical gaslighting
Since medical literature largely focuses on how symptoms present in white men, students and doctors might not know how to spot these signs in other patients or suggest treatment plans for them. This can happen a lot with
Women patients also tend to wait longer for cancer and heart-disease diagnoses than men, The New York Times reported. One study found that younger women were two times more likely than young men to have a medical expert give a mental-health diagnosis when their symptoms pointed more to heart disease.
Chloe Girardier said she sought a doctor’s appointment after a persistent cough but was denied at first because it was “just a cough,” The Sun reported.
After five months and seven doctor’s appointments with no answers, Girardier — who by then had begun losing weight for no apparent reason — said she insisted on a chest X-ray. The scan revealed a 4.25-inch mass in her chest that turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer that required her to undergo intensive chemotherapy.
“I can’t believe it wasn’t looked into further, and if I hadn’t pushed for the chest X-ray, I may still not have a diagnosis,” she told The Sun.
Black patients are undertreated for pain
One 2016 study found that about half of white medical students and residents endorsed false beliefs about biological differences between Black and white people, like that Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive and their skin is thicker. In turn, they rated Black patients’ pain as lower and made less accurate treatment recommendations.
Ashanti Coleman, a Black nurse in Memphis, Tennessee, previously told Insider that a doctor dismissed her second stroke as a migraine and discharged her without assessing her pain or conducting a neurological exam. She said she could have died had she not gone to a different hospital the next day when her pain was even worse.
Coleman said the neurologist at the first hospital told her primary-care physician that “she doesn’t look like she’s in pain,” so they didn’t follow up with tests.
Fat bias can also contribute to medical gaslighting
One study of more than 4,700 medical students across the country found that 74% exhibited implicit weight bias — meaning they weren’t aware of their negative attitudes toward bigger-bodied people — and 67% had explicit weight bias, meaning they consciously had more negative feelings when, in this case, presented with photos of
As a result, people who are overweight or obese can receive inappropriate care because doctors might struggle to see beyond a patient’s weight, and patients who’ hae been scarred by weight bias might avoid seeking care.
Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, better known as Dr. Mike on social media, described a young male patient who had morbid obesity, suffered body aches, joint pain, and fatigue. Varshavski said the patient’s first doctor chalked up his symptoms to weight-related arthritis, but he diagnosed it as Lyme disease.
“A lot of my patients do suffer with their quality of life because they fall into the category of morbid obesity,” Varshavski said on his YouTube channel. “But it’s also not right to blame everything that’s going on without doing a proper history and physical.”