Medical gaslighting, while unintentional in many instances, can lead to harmful consequences. Here’s what this means for pharma marketers and what they can do to help rebuild patient trust.
Patients expect doctors to listen to their concerns, provide accurate information, and offer appropriate treatment. However, some people’s healthcare experiences can be far from ideal. Patients may feel disrespected or dismissed by some healthcare professionals throughout their care journey, leaving them confused, frustrated, and doubtful.
This phenomenon, known as medical gaslighting, can have severe consequences on an individual’s physical and mental well-being. Although doctors may not intentionally gaslight their patients, it’s still important to recognize the signs of gaslighting and understand how to avoid it. In this article, we will explore what patients mean when they mention the term “gaslighting,” what to be mindful of, and how pharma marketers can help patients advocate for themselves and communicate more confidently with their doctors.
Who is Most Vulnerable to Medical Gaslighting?
Most medical literature and research have historically focused on symptoms and treatment on white cisgender men. As such, current guidelines for diagnosis and care can be biased against women1, BIPOC2 communities, and LGBTQIA+ patients. Let’s break down how each patient group may feel confused and unheard when discussing symptoms with their physician.
The lack of understanding and recognition of women’s unique health concerns and symptoms has led to a medical gender bias that can too often lead to medical gaslighting. For example, many women experience medical gaslighting with heart-related events or reproductive concerns—they may be told their symptoms point to a mental health condition or premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Since most diagnostic factors originate from cisgender male-dominated studies, the symptoms women experience may not always align with medical guidelines. For example, researchers and specialists have learned that women can undergo a range of heart disease symptoms—like indigestion, heavy arms, debilitating fatigue, and weakness—that do not necessarily align with telltale signs of heart disease, such as chest pain, upper body discomfort, and lightheadedness.
One study found that women are 50% more likely to receive the wrong diagnosis after a heart attack. Likewise, another study discovered that female patients faced a higher risk of misdiagnosis after experiencing a stroke due to a greater prevalence of lesser-known, female-specific symptoms. Early detection could save a life, and every second a condition remains untreated can result in a fatal outcome.
Reproductive concerns that are often misdiagnosed or dismissed include perimenopause and endometriosis. Perimenopause is challenging to treat, because it’s experienced differently by each woman. And until recently, it has also been largely ignored in the health and medical industries—only around 20% of obstetrics and gynecology programs provide training in menopause medicine.
With endometriosis, patients can suffer for seven to 10 years before receiving an accurate diagnosis. The condition affects 1 in 10 patients of reproductive age, with common symptoms including severe bloating, excess blood loss, painful cramps, and discomfort during intercourse. Despite its prevalence, some endometriosis patients have encountered diminishing remarks from medical professionals.
Healthgrades’ very own Marketing Manager, Elizabeth Groux, was one of these patients until they finally found an answer to their painful periods.
“I always thought what I was experiencing was normal,” Elizabeth said. “But when I got to college, my symptoms started getting a lot worse.” Over nearly three years, Elizabeth sought opinions from different doctors, most of whom were skeptical and dismissive. However, after doing some research, Elizabeth’s mother recognized their symptoms as a possible sign of endometriosis and encouraged them to bring it up with a doctor.
“It was actually a really bad experience,” Elizabeth reflected. “[The doctor] was rough with the exam and insisted on an ultrasound. But endometriosis doesn’t show up on an ultrasound, so the doctor suggested I get psychiatric help to manage my pain.” Fortunately, Elizabeth sought the opinion of one more doctor afterward, which turned out to be a surgery consult confirming the condition.
“The negative responses from the doctors made me feel like I was losing my mind. For some time, I was almost convinced it was a psychological issue. But the pain was so real I knew it couldn’t have been,” Elizabeth said. “I’m so grateful that my mom was there and pointed out that what I was feeling wasn’t normal.”
Not surprisingly, a recent Healthgrades survey of women found that whether a doctor listens is the number one factor that determines women’s satisfaction with their primary care providers.
Historically marginalized groups also face frequent biases in the healthcare space that ultimately affect their health. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted lingering stereotypes and care disparities: the CDC reported that Black, American Indian, and Hispanic patients are two times more likely to die from COVID-19 complications than their white non-Hispanic counterparts.
At the height of the pandemic, The New York Times reported on the case of Dr. Susan Moore—a Black woman and practicing physician who began experiencing COVID-19-related chest pain but was denied medication. While in the hospital, Dr. Moore said she had to beg her white doctor to scan her chest and administer painkillers and Remdesivir, the antiviral drug used by many hospitals to treat COVID-19. The doctor refused to listen, denying her symptoms. He claimed he was uncomfortable administering narcotics as part of her treatment plan, which made Dr. Moore feel “like a drug addict” and victim of gaslighting.
After receiving neck and lung scans showing inflammation, Dr. Moore was finally administered pain medication and sent home. She posted videos on Facebook documenting her experience but ultimately passed a few weeks later. In one of her final videos, she attributed racial prejudice as the cause of her medical neglect, stating: “I put forth, and I maintain, if I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that.”
Biases in healthcare can be difficult to confront, but education and DEI training can mean the difference between a patient surviving and a patient dying a preventable death. With a recent study showing that medical professionals are almost three times more likely to use negative terms like “noncompliant” or “agitated” in Black patients’ health records than in those of white patients, there’s still a lot of work left to do in this space.
Despite progress made in recent years towards greater LGBTQIA+ acceptance and visibility, many members of this community continue to experience medical gaslighting, leading to significant disparities in healthcare access and outcomes. In 2018, the Center for American Progress published a nationally representative survey that grouped participants into lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) and found that nearly one in 10 LGBQ individuals had a doctor refuse to see them because of their sexual orientation. In the same survey, almost three in 10 transgender people were denied care because of their gender identity. More recently, a poll by The 19th News showed that 28% of LGBTQIA+ people had been stereotyped at a doctor’s office, and 24% said they were blamed for their own health problems.
What’s more, when an LGBTQIA+ person belongs to more than one marginalized group—such as a Black transgender woman—these problems become amplified, and it becomes more challenging for these patients to get the medical assistance they need.
How Can Marketers Help Prevent Instances of Gaslighting?
Patients want to feel supported and understood when addressing health problems with a physician. But experiencing medical gaslighting can deter patients from seeking further care, which can escalate to more critical conditions that remain unaddressed.
In Healthgrades’ Cultural Competency report, we found that the majority of doctors (87%) are confident in their ability to treat all patients regardless of cultural background, language, sexual orientation, and health literacy. What’s more, roughly one in four physicians is interested in additional training that would better equip them to care for patients of different gender, sexual, racial, or cultural identities. Over 44% of younger physicians with less than ten years of practice are interested in additional training. These sentiments may indicate a willingness to become better informed to provide the best possible care for all patients.
To spearhead better healthcare discussions between patients and doctors, marketers can aim to provide educational content and discussion guides that encourage the following:
- Open and honest conversations: Patients can do research ahead of time and write down their questions and concerns before their appointments. They can also maintain detailed observations of their symptoms, track their occurrences, and keep a comprehensive medical history. When patients feel more confident and prepared during healthcare visits, they’re more likely to disclose their symptoms fully and report their concerns, leading to more accurate diagnoses. To address conditions that are more likely to be misinterpreted—such as heart conditions, endometriosis, and migraine—marketers can educate women with the language they need to have more meaningful conversations with doctors.
- A willingness to seek a second opinion: A second opinion from another healthcare professional can provide a fresh perspective, confirm the initial diagnosis, and/or offer alternative treatment options that may work better for a patient. Additionally, doctors can refer patients to support groups or suggest they bring a support person, such as a parent, spouse, or friend, to help them feel more comfortable and supported during their appointment.
- Recognizing signs of gaslighting behavior: Doctors have specialized knowledge of healthcare and health topics in general, but we know our bodies best. If patients reflect on their interactions with their doctors and realize they’re not being treated in a fair manner, they can feel empowered to speak up and seek the help they need.
Even unintentionally, the consequences of medical gaslighting can be detrimental. Patients may experience delays in receiving the correct diagnosis, endure unnecessary or ineffective treatments, lose trust in healthcare professionals, and second-guess their symptoms. Pharma marketers are in a prime position to work with patients to prevent these adverse outcomes and help them live fuller, healthier lives.
Building Patient Confidence with Healthgrades
Education is power. By partnering with Healthgrades, your pharma brand can help the largest pool of qualified patients best prepare for their next appointment to drive meaningful engagement.
As America’s leading platform for connecting patients with the right doctor, Healthgrades provides comprehensive educational content and customizable appointment guides to help your brand motivate consumers to seek care and prepare them for better treatment discussions. Our Guided Physician Search tool allows your brand to embed our doctor search experience onto your brand site, so consumers can appoint when treatment is top of mind. On Healthgrades physician profiles, patients can learn about a doctor’s areas of expertise and read patient reviews that highlight factors such as whether a doctor listens well to choose the right specialist for them.
Patient-doctor connections are vital to driving prescriptions, and Healthgrades can help you improve those relationships. Chat with us today to learn how we can work together towards a future where every patient is granted the compassionate care they rightfully deserve.