Overcoming Medical Gaslighting During Menopause.
When it comes to our health, we trust doctors to give us their expert opinion and guidance. We literally trust them with our lives. And yet, time and time again, my perimenopausal friends complain that they’ve left a doctor’s appointment feeling dismissed and minimized instead of supported, heard and understood. Unfortunately, this is a common experience for many women who have been victims of medical gaslighting during menopause.
What is medical gaslighting?
This phenomenon occurs when health professionals dismiss or trivialize a patient’s symptoms or concerns. It often leads to a delay in proper diagnosis and treatment. It’s when healthcare professionals make us doubt our own experiences and symptoms, or worse, ignore them altogether. And unfortunately, it’s a common experience for many women.
It can take many forms, such as implying that a woman is being overly emotional or exaggerating her symptoms, rushing her out of the doctor’s office without fully addressing her health care concerns, or simply telling her that she’s fine when she knows she’s not.
From menstrual pain being written off as “normal” or heart disease being labelled as anxiety, women’s pain and symptoms are often ignored or downplayed. And try talking to your doctor about your unusual and unpredictable menopause symptoms and see how quickly they bring up sleeping pills, birth control or anti-anxiety meds.
As someone who has had my own perimenopausal health concerns brushed off in the past, I know how frustrating and disheartening it can be.
But the good news is that we’ve got your back. We’ve experienced it ourselves, we’re exploring the issues and instead of just complaining about it. We can work together to move the needle and make things better. So let’s dig in, because…
our health is too important to ignore
Why does medical gaslighting happen?
Medical gaslighting is a troubling phenomenon that is fuelled by:
- The historical stigma that women are excessively emotional has often led to healthcare providers questioning women’s credibility and assuming their symptoms to be psychosomatic rather than physical.
- The fact that women were historically excluded from clinical trials because researchers felt that our fluctuating hormones would complicate the studies – it wasn’t until 1993 that the Revitalization Act mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research. This exclusion from research results in a significant lack of knowledge about women’s health and makes it challenging to identify sex-specific differences in disease presentation and drug efficacy. A great example is that, “while 90% of women report at least one PMS symptom, or female trouble, five times more studies have researched erectile dysfunction, which affects only 19% of males.”*
- Residents in medical school often receive little training on women’s health. Menopause is given even less attention, with only several hours to a week or two of education at most. Due to this lack of education, many residents feel ill-equipped to manage menopausal symptoms, and may express discomfort in doing so.
And the medical disparities faced by women from racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ2S+ community are even more pronounced. The University of Michigan has reported that “Black women experience menopause 8.5 months earlier than white women and often endure more severe symptoms such as hot flashes, depression, and sleep disturbances. However, they are less likely to receive hormone therapy and comprehensive medical and mental health services, compounding their struggles.”
The impacts on women’s health
Medical gaslighting can have serious health consequences for women. It can delay diagnosis and treatment, leading to worsened health outcomes.
One study published in Academic Emergency Medicine found that women who went to the Emergency Room (ER) with severe stomach pain had to wait for almost 33% longer than men with the same symptoms.
Other studies show that women encounter longer wait times for cancer or heart disease diagnoses, and are seven times more likely to be discharged from the ER during a heart attack, when compared to men. If their heart issues are treated, women wait 7 minutes longer than men for a heart attack treatment protocol to be activated
Medical gaslighting can also cause psychological harm, including feelings of frustration, anxiety, and shame.
A recent survey by the North American Menopause Society found that 45% of women reported that their health care provider did not take their menopause symptoms seriously.
This lack of support for women’s health issues erodes the trust between patients and healthcare providers. And many women are less likely to seek the care they need in the future.
Examples of medical gaslighting in healthcare settings
So what does medical gaslighting look like? Here are just a few scenarios you should watch out for:
- Your symptoms are dismissed or belittled,
- A doctor refuses to run necessary medical tests or conduct an adequate physical examination,
- Your health care questions are ignored or downplayed,
- You’re prescribed an unnecessary medication or treatment,
- You’re refused a specialist referral,
- Your symptoms are blamed on your weight or mental health history, without conducting proper evaluations,
- You doctor refuses to listen to and respect your experience and knowledge of your own body.
How can you avoid medical gaslighting?
The best way to avoid medical gaslighting is to advocate for your own health. Here a few tips female patients can follow to ensure the best care possible:
- Keep notes about symptoms, triggers, levels and descriptions of pain. It’s also a great idea to keep a record of your family’s medical history, and any lab or imaging results.
- Prepare a list of questions before your appointment.
- When you set up your appointment, let the office know what you want to talk about. Send them your list of questions in advance. A good health care professional will do some prep work, if they have time.
- Focus on your most pressing issues.
- Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel like you’re not being heard.
- Make sure you understand the next steps. If your healthcare provider tries to rush you out of the office, continue to ask for clarification or more information until you feel comfortable.
- Bring a support person along. Because in a stressful situations, it’s hard to think clearly and process information accurately.
- Consider seeking a second opinion or switching healthcare providers if you feel unheard or disrespected.
- Look for a support group in your area. They will have a ton of information and resources and a community of people to share your story with.
Be the hero of your health story
Medical gaslighting is a pervasive and harmful problem in women’s health. But by understanding what it is, why it happens, and how to avoid it, we can help to stop it. Together we can become better advocates for our health.
Our commitment to women and women’s health remains unwavering. And we strive to empower women to live their best possible lives every day. To help women thrive and not just survive perimenopause.
So remember, your health concerns are valid and you deserve to be taken seriously. So keep speaking up and keep seeking care. We’re here for you every step of the way.