Medical Gaslighting and Asthma: What Is It?
Last updated: June 2023
I was watching the Today Show and stopped in my tracks when a story came on about medical gaslighting. Maria Shriver was reporting on the problem that, when women complain of medical problems, they are often dismissed and told that they are just depressed, anxious, or fat.1
Medical gaslighting is when doctors misdiagnose, dismiss, or gaslight patients, especially women.
One patient in the segment had been complaining of severe stomach pain and back pain for 4 years. Her specialist would not listen – even after she started vomiting and losing her hair. The specialist told her to learn to live with it.1
She eventually ended up in the emergency room (ER), where they discovered she had a 25-pound cancerous tumor on her ovary. Yes, 25 pounds. They told her she was about 2 weeks away from death.1
Experiencing medical gaslighting related to asthma
Her story hit a nerve because I have experienced medical gaslighting throughout my life. My daughter has also experienced it during a doctor's appointment. Our beloved Asthma Doc passed away, and another doctor had taken over his clinic. Asthma Doc has known my daughter since she was born, saw her grow up, and helped her through 6 hospitalizations for asthma. Her asthma has always been hard to control.
New Asthma Doc performed a spirometry test on my daughter and said her lungs looked great. He said she did not have asthma. I told him he was wrong and he should look at her chart and see how many times she was in the hospital for asthma.
He said she is older now, her past medical history does not count – and refused to renew her controller inhaler. I reminded him that I am an experienced Certified Asthma Educator, and I know she still has asthma. He then said that he might be wrong. He grudgingly said if she started having problems in a few days, to let him know and he would “let” her have a controller inhaler. Within days she was coughing and wheezing. She called him, he refilled her prescription, and we switched doctors.
With that experience on my mind, I decided to share the Today Show segment on my social media. I was flooded with comments from other women. They all had experienced medical gaslighting and their stories were heartbreaking – and scary.
This seems to happen to women because we can be people pleasers who do not want to disappoint our doctor. We may not complain much or challenge our doctor on a misdiagnosis.
Doctors sometimes think we women are being dramatic or exaggerating. And that can cause us to question ourselves.
To make matters worse, most research is done on men. Women are not small men. We have different medical problems and our bodies process (metabolize) medications differently.
Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick was in the segment and is Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She said:1
"Most of the data that we use today in medicine is based on research on men, male animals or male cells, which is just shocking."
Woah! So, how can we fix this problem? What is being done to help women?
Battle to be believed by doctors
Leaders at top hospitals in the United States are aware of the disparity and want to change how women are treated. They are securing more funding for research on women’s health. They are also training doctors to recognize gender biases. And they are teaching female patients to be better advocates.
You and your doctor should be a team and decide together what is best for you. To prep for your next visit, you can:
- Jot down your symptoms in detail. (Doctors have a limited amount of time, so this can help them focus.)
- Ask for a thorough physical exam. (Do you need blood work? X-rays? An MRI?)
- Get a second, third, or even fourth opinion
If your doctor is not listening, emphasize that these symptoms are not normal for your body. Remind them that they are an expert, but you are the expert on your own body.
The segment also suggests asking your doctor, “If you were in my position, what questions would you ask and what specialist would you see next?”1
Remember that doctors are also patients at times, so approach them from that angle.
And remember to stand up for yourself. You are worth it!
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