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Are You Aware of Medical Gaslighting?

I wasn’t, until it happened to me several times.

© Evellean |Shutterstock
Source: © Evellean |Shutterstock

The first time it happened I was experiencing intense chest pains. My primary care physician, who was a woman, referred me to the cardiologist in her practice, a man. He spent five minutes with me and diagnosed me with anxiety. I was aware my chart was peppered with mental health diagnoses such as depression, anorexia, and probably anxiety, as well as the psychotropic medications I was prescribed.

I’d had panic attacks and I knew these chest pains were not anxiety. I did something radical for myself at the time and without telling my PCP, I sought a second opinion at a women’s health center in New York City. The cardiologist was a champion for women’s heart health who was often quoted in the press. She asked the right questions regarding my history and symptoms and diagnosed me with Printzmetal’s Angina, an uncommon condition in which a sudden spasm occurs in a coronary artery. The cardiologist prescribed me the correct medication and the frequency of the spasms decreased significantly. When I called my PCP to tell her of this new diagnosis, she merely said, “Thanks for letting me know.”

A recent New York Times article — “Feeling Dismissed? How To Spot ‘Medical Gaslighting’ and What to Do About It” — states that "the experience of having one’s concerns dismissed by a medical provider, often referred to as medical gaslighting, can happen to anyone."

This article states that medical gaslighting is more apt to affect women, people of color, geriatric patients, and LGBTQ people. In another Times article — “Women Are Calling Out ‘Medical Gaslighting.’” — the paper reported, “We know that women, and especially women of color, are often diagnosed and treated differently by doctors than men are, even when they have the same health conditions.”

Even though all my psychiatric diagnoses are in full sustained remission, I still have to list my psychotropic meds on my list of medications. Each time I go to a new physician, I’m fearful that she (preferably it's she) will take one glance at the list and write me and my symptoms off as mental-illness based.

This Times article also notes, “Women say doctors frequently blame their health problems on their mental health, weight, or a lack of self-care, which can delay effective treatment. Research suggests that women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a mental illness when their symptoms are consistent with heart disease.”

In early 2017 I was having stomach pain and nausea. The (male) gastroenterologist told me I was having chronic functional abdominal pain and I would have to learn to live with it. He hinted, not so subtly, that the pain was related to my mental health. I was so upset, I didn’t seek a second opinion for another four months, until I had lost a significant amount of weight and was in excruciating pain. I went to see a female GI at the same women’s health center as the above-mentioned cardiologist. She ordered a lot of tests, and in the end, I was diagnosed with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) which occurs when there is an abnormal increase in the overall bacterial population in the small intestine. By the time I was diagnosed, I had lost over 20 pounds and was tired and weak. The first-line antibiotic typically prescribed for SIBO, Xifaxan, was ineffective for me. I eventually had to go on the Low-FODMAP diet and work with a nutritionist who specialized in working with this type of food plan. It took me over a year to gain all the weight back.

I again sent a message through the patient portal to the original GI who misdiagnosed me, letting him know the correct diagnosis was SIBO. He also answered, “Thank you for letting me know."

Is that their standard answer? How about, “I’m sorry for not believing you"?

© Andrea Rosenhaft
Source: © Andrea Rosenhaft
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