When most people think of medical malpractice, they go to particularly egregious situations first. Horrifying instances of negligence like surgeons who amputate the wrong limb or doctors prescribing the wrong medication to people with deadly allergies capture the imagination. However, they’re nowhere near the most common types of malpractice in daily life.
Relatively subtle negligence like medical gaslighting is much more pervasive. A healthcare professional can ruin a patient’s life and health by gaslighting them just as thoroughly as if they had botched a surgery. Here’s what you need to know about how medical gaslighting occurs and when it crosses the line into actual malpractice.
What Is Gaslighting?
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1940s movie Gaslight. In the movie, a husband tries to drive his wife insane by making her doubt her perception of reality. One of the most notable ways he does this is by turning down the gaslights that light their home without his wife’s knowledge and denying that it seems brighter or dimmer. His wife trusts him and begins to believe that she might actually be crazy despite accurately noticing when the lighting conditions change.
From this basis, “gaslighting” has become a term used to describe several situations. It’s commonly used to describe real-life abuse between partners, like in the movie. It can include telling the victim that they’re crazy, remembering things wrong and that the abusive partner is the only one the victim can trust. However, it’s also become increasingly common in other fields, particularly the medical and healthcare world.
Gaslighting in Modern Healthcare
Medical gaslighting is slightly different from relationship abuse because of the power structure involved. Instead of two partners who are supposed to be on equal standing, the relationship between a healthcare professional and a patient automatically includes a power imbalance. The professional has the power to grant the patient treatment or label them a “drug seeker.” Meanwhile, most patients can’t quickly switch doctors because of insurance limitations.
As a result, medical gaslighting is much easier to perpetuate. Healthcare workers don’t need to establish a position of authority over their patients. That’s already been built into the system.
This also changes what this abuse looks like in a medical institution. When patients come in with a complaint, the healthcare professional doesn’t insult them. Instead, they listen to the patients describe their symptoms, then ask whether their pain is “really that bad” or decide that some of their symptoms are psychological and not physical. Essentially, the professional chooses to disbelieve the patients’ lived experiences on the assumption that they know better, even when this isn’t true.
The Risks of Medical Gaslighting
Why is gaslighting such a problem in modern healthcare? There are several reasons. First and foremost, patients put a lot of trust in their healthcare team. Healthcare workers put years of time and effort into attaining degrees, so this trust is earned in most cases. However, when a medical professional has biases or loses their ability to care about patients, this trust puts patients at risk of abuse and negligence.
Furthermore, the constant pressure on healthcare workers to treat more patients in less time makes them more likely to stop caring about the people they treat. Physicians and nurses who are burned out are less likely to care about what their patients tell them.
In turn, they’re more likely to dismiss concerns that should trigger deeper, more time-consuming investigations and tell people their suffering is “all in their head.” Patients who believe this gaslighting doubt their own perceptions and may stop seeking necessary treatment.
Most medical professionals don’t intend to gaslight their patients. Still, the behavior is incredibly harmful. A doctor who dismisses a patient’s pain could delay their diagnosis of a critical condition like cancer, endometriosis, or allergies. This can allow these conditions to worsen and become permanently disabling or even fatal.
When Medical Gaslighting Becomes Malpractice
Healthcare gaslighting can happen on many levels. It’s not illegal on its own, but it can quickly cross into the realm of medical malpractice. Gaslighting is often connected to forms of malpractice like failure to diagnose.
It’s your physician’s responsibility to diagnose you with critical conditions. Suppose you attend an appointment with a health complaint, and your doctor dismisses it or refuses to refer you to an appropriate specialist because they don’t believe your symptoms. In that case, they may be committing malpractice through failure to diagnose.
Similarly, if your healthcare team diagnoses you with an “easier” condition instead of performing tests to determine your actual condition, they are failing to diagnose you accurately. They are harming your health by refusing to test you correctly and not treating you appropriately.
Fighting Medical Gaslighting
Health professionals who gaslight patients most often do so because they don’t want to put in the work to treat you appropriately. You can protect yourself from gaslighting by standing up for yourself in the treatment room. Try tactics like:
- Demanding to have someone in the room with you. Simply having a friend or family member present to observe your treatment can encourage healthcare professionals to treat you well. The extra person acts as a witness who can corroborate what you say if you need to take legal action.
- Insisting that the healthcare team includes your requests and their refusals in your medical record. Similarly, you should ask your medical team, “Please include that you are refusing to test/refer me for this condition in my medical record.” If something happens to you because of their refusal, you will have documentation that it’s their fault.
- Bringing in research on your condition. Bring in trusted sources such as studies and treatment guidelines if you’re pursuing a diagnosis. This can help you convince your physician that you’re serious and give them reference material if it’s a rarer condition.
Don’t Put Up with Medical Gaslighting
You shouldn’t have to treat accessing healthcare like a fight. If your doctor has denied your lived experience and refused to diagnose you with a condition, they may be gaslighting you and committing medical malpractice. Reach out to the expert team at the Law Offices of Michael Oran, APC, today to schedule your consultation and start fighting for your right to accurate, supportive healthcare.