Is Your Doctor Gaslighting You? Here’s What to Do
Four years ago, Deborah J. Cohan went to her primary-care doctor with excruciating pain throughout her midsection. “I wasn’t able to stand up straight. Eating and going to the bathroom were uncomfortable,” Cohan, who lives in South Carolina, tells Health. She had a hunch it was gynecological, but her doctor dismissed the idea. Declaring it to be back pain, she prescribed Cohan muscle relaxants.
They didn’t work. Neither did over-the-counter pain relief, ice, heat, chiropractic care, or stretching.
A few days later, Cohan’s pain was so bad, she went to the ER. But instead of getting help, she only encountered more pushback.
The doctor on duty confidently announced that Cohan had uterine fibroids. When she pointed out that she didn’t have a uterus anymore—it had been removed in that same hospital the year before—“the doctor was adamant I was mistaken,” she remembers.
Not until Cohan’s ob-gyn came onto the scene was the right diagnosis finally made. Cohan’s ovaries had twisted and fallen from their normal position—a condition called ovarian torsion. It’s considered a medical emergency and, if left untreated, can be fatal.
After immediate surgery to remove both her ovaries, Cohan recuperated quickly. Still, “this experience confirmed what I’ve long believed,” she says. “Women need to embrace, trust, own, and protect their own bodies.”
In other words, doctors won’t always do that for you. In fact, your doctor might even try to gaslight you.
“Gaslighting” happens when one person tries to convince another to second-guess their instincts and doubt their perception that something is real. Medical gaslighting happens when health-care professionals downplay or blow off symptoms you know you’re feeling and instead try to convince you they’re caused by something else—or even that you’re imagining them.
A disconnect—or disrespect?
As the #MeToo movement continues to bring allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault into the daylight, it’s illuminating another unsettling gender-based offense: how women’s health issues often go ignored, undertreated, or misdiagnosed by doctors.
“It’s a true phenomenon,” G. Thomas Ruiz, MD, lead ob-gyn at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Health. “Gender bias is a harsh opinion as to why [it happens], but there’s some pretty good research to support that.”
Granted, some gynecological disorders, like endometriosis, are notoriously tricky to diagnose. But it’s not just women’s health issues that doctors tend to downplay.
For instance, women with heart disease are prescribed less medicine and offered surgery less often than men. Women are also less likely to get treatment for conditions ranging from strokes to knee pain, researchers reported in Critical Care Nurse. Go to the ER with severe stomach pain? You’ll wait 65 minutes to get help vs. the 49 minutes it takes for men to be offered pain relief, according to a study in Academic Emergency Medicine.
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