Medical Gaslighting: A Real Life Horror Movie if Left Unchecked
The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” in which a man isolates his wife in a creepy Victorian home and tricks her into believing she’s close to mental collapse, including by flickering the home’s gaslights. Medical gaslighting is when a medical professional is dismissing or downplaying a patient’s symptoms or attributing them to something else, such as a mental condition.
When 63-year-old Josephine Messelmani, who is a nurse, told the doctor who was treating her that he was hurting her leg, he informed her that she was not, in fact, feeling any pain. She says the physician told her that her perception was “impossible. It’s all in your mind.”
The health care professional assists seniors, so she says she’s concerned about the need for advocates to combat this problem.
“Doctors don’t listen, the doctor was arrogant,” says Messelmani, who indeed developed complications and bruising from the doctor’s treatment of her circulatory problem.
Older adults, women, and people of color commonly face medical gaslighting, according to studies including a 2022 Global Genes report on disease equity, diversity and inclusion. In this case, Messelmani complained to both the doctor and his staff.
“I was thinking, through all this, who’s going to protect senior citizens? Seniors are more vulnerable.”
Good RX warns that medical gaslighting can lead to dangerous outcomes including missed diagnoses, improper treatment, and even medical trauma. Messelmani puts it starkly: “Gaslighting can result in a lot of different things, up to and including death.”
Dr. Peter Lichtenberg, who heads the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology, calls gaslighting “a failure” by the medical system “to recognize different diseases and their effect on aging.”
An October 2022 survey on medical gaslighting by the SHE Media Collective, which focuses on women’s issues, found:
72 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced gaslighting.
71 percent said doctors told them their symptoms were made up.
73 percent of patients came to doubt their own memories.
75 percent switched practitioners.
Paige L. Sweet, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, studies and writes extensively about gaslighting, with a focus on interpersonal relationships.
“It’s often true that expertise is used to dismiss or deny patient complaints,” she says, based on people she has interviewed. “They felt either their pain or discomfort was minimized or they were told they were imagining their symptoms. They weren’t taken seriously by doctors.”
She adds “there is research showing Black women have a higher mortality rate” when it comes to medical care. “Black people’s pain is not taken as seriously. There is literally a belief among doctors that Blacks don’t experience as much pain as whites.”
And Sweet confirms, “age is a factor. Older people may be dismissed or ignored in medical settings” because they aren’t seen as capable of explaining their pain or illness.
Stephanie Donaldson, 74, of Detroit, a consultant for Cass Community Social Services and a caregiver for her 83-year-old friend, has her own gaslighting story.
In December 2022 she was feeling tired and had trouble sleeping. She had a checkup by a doctor who wasn’t her regular physician. She says the doctor told her she was just “worn out” and gave her a prescription “that would make me feel better.”
Three days later, fearing she might have COVID, Donaldson went to an urgent care, where a chest X-ray revealed fluid in her lungs. She was advised to go to a hospital emergency room and was immediately admitted. The diagnosis: “I had Stage 4 lung cancer.”
“I was in shock. I was a healthy 74-year-old before,” Donaldson adds. “I didn’t get cancer in three days. Part of the problem may be I’m a Black woman from Detroit.”
Today, she says, she is still trying to find out how she was misdiagnosed.
Veteran journalist Alan Fisk has been reporting on aging under a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.
How to Avoid Medical Gaslighting
Keep detailed notes and records on symptoms, tests, drugs and family medical history.
Prepare a list of questions ahead of appointments and don’t be afraid to ask more questions.
Bring a trusted friend or family member to medical appointments or treatments.
Focus on your most pressing issue. The average primary care doctor exam lasts only 18 minutes.
Clarify next treatment steps and goals.
–From The New York Times: ”Feeling Dismissed? How to Spot ‘Medical Gaslighting’ and What to Do About It.”