Going to a doctor’s appointment is nobody’s favorite activity, but if all goes well you leave feeling pretty good, with your symptoms addressed and questions answered, knowing next steps for taking care of yourself. But we all know it doesn’t always go that way.
If you’ve walked out of a medical appointment feeling less than — less than heard, less than respected — or worse, outright shamed or gaslit by a healthcare provider, you are not alone.
You may have experienced something called “medical gaslighting,” Gaslighting is defined as “when someone in power uses manipulation to make another person doubt his or her own judgment.” It’s probably not a doctor’s intention to make patients think they’re mentally unsound, but if one dismisses your symptoms or story in a way that suggests your experiences aren’t real or serious enough to mention, feeling gaslit is the result. When it comes to birth control and sexual health, shame and stigma can be intruders in the exam room.
What You Told Us About Gaslighting
We’ve heard from many Nurx patients that they’ve felt shamed, gaslit or outright dismissed by medical providers in the past, so we partnered with migraine care provider Cove to understand exactly how widespread this problem is. We conducted a survey and found that more than 50% of respondents have felt shamed, gaslit or dismissed at a doctor’s office. Here are just a few examples, in real patients’ words:
“I was told by my local OB/GYN that having yearly pap smears were mandatory, starting at age 16, in order to get a prescription for birth control. It wasn’t until a few years later when I went to college and found out this wasn’t the ‘norm’ and in fact many of my friends received birth control through their PCP.”
“After a nine day migraine and no longer being able to hold down water I went to the ER. I was quizzed as to why I was there and given OTC painkiller and a triptan. I said I had tried that combo and was immediately told they were not going to give me anything stronger and treated me like an addict.”
“During a gynecological exam I was questioned at length about my pubic hair, and told I didn’t need to maintain it the way I was choosing to.”
“My gynecologist would spend so much time saying, ‘If you lost weight you’d be less depressed and anxious’ and ‘Don’t you feel gross being that weight?’.
“I have been telling doctors about my symptoms for over ten years, and they have just sent me to psychiatrists. Last week a neurologist diagnosed me with a neurological disorder and medication has improved all of my symptoms. Ten years of my life suffering and being told it was due to mental health problems.”
When Bias Enters the Exam Room
Clearly medical gaslighting and shaming is a big problem, and there’s evidence that it’s not distributed equally. Women and people of color are more likely to encounter this treatment by the medical system, especially when it has to do with their symptoms being dismissed. 40% respondents to our survey reported that female gender played a role in how they were treated:
“My husband can go to a doctor and say something and I can go to a doctor and say the exact same thing and he is automatically taken more seriously.”
“Doctors are very dismissive of many symptoms because they do not take a woman’s pain seriously. This led to a delay in my migraine diagnosis.”
“I feel like being a woman made it easier for doctors to say I was just anxious instead of investigating my symptoms further.”
“I think physicians tend to blow off women’s symptoms more than men. I work in an ER and I see the same diagnosis but treatments are different between sexes.”
Know, Share, Live Your Patient Rights
Whether you’ve been judged or shamed for wanting birth control or STI testing, or felt gaslit by providers who said their migraine symptoms were no big deal, know that it should not be that way, and that as a patient you do have rights. Nurx has partnered with the digital migraine clinic Cove to spread the word that Patients Have Rights. To help you exercise those rights at future medical appointments, Nurx and Cove put together some tips for what you can do before, during, and after the appointment:
Track your symptoms
No matter what sort of relationship you have with your medical provider, having your symptom history in front of you while you’re talking about your concerns can help them understand what’s wrong and make a diagnosis faster.
And when you’re worried about not being believed, being able to show your medical provider data can help you maintain your confidence when they start asking probing questions.
Come with questions
Visiting the doctor’s office can be a nerve-wracking experience, and if your mind sometimes goes blank when you’re nervous, you’re not alone. Make a list of questions you have about your symptoms in the weeks leading up to your appointment, and keep it on your phone or a piece of paper you bring with you.
Practice saying “no”
American adults have “the right to self-determination in health care decisions” according to a Patient Self-Determination Act, a federal law. And while that law is primarily focused on medical treatments and surgeries, the same principle also applies to procedures like pelvic exams or even being weighed when not medically necessary.
Bring a buddy
If you feel it would be helpful, bring a support person, and let them know in advance what you want to discuss at the appointment so they can make sure you get to it. They can also help you remember what the provider said after you leave.
While you may be convinced you’ll remember everything your medical provider said later, why risk it? These days, you can often access your provider’s notes via an online patient portal after the appointment as well, but they may have a different perspective than you on what’s worth noting down. You can also ask your medical provider for permission to record the appointment on your phone.
Ask for a second opinion
Didn’t get the answers you needed from your medical provider? Remember that you have the right to see another one. Even when your medical provider isn’t willing to refer you to a specialist, depending on what kind of health insurance you have, you may be able to make an appointment with one directly. And, of course, Nurx is here for you to help with birth control, sexual health, prescription skincare, migraine treatment and mental health conditions.
Being prepared and understanding all your options will empower you to get the care you deserve from interactions with the medical system. Patients have rights, and knowing yours will help you take care of body and mind.
Learn more about getting treatment through Nurx.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.