How to advocate for yourself against medical gaslighting
written by jessica diggs
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Medical gaslighting is getting a lot of acknowledgement in the media lately. As a former doula, cis, Black woman, medical gaslighting is not new at all. Many women have likely experienced some degree of dismissiveness by a healthcare professional before.
What exactly is medical gaslighting?
I would define medical gaslighting as “the act of a medical care provider dismissing a patient’s concerns”.
Examples of gaslighting in women’s health care:
“Oh, you’re a first time parent, you’re supposed to be anxious.”
“You’re pregnant, it’s not supposed to be comfortable.”
“You are just emotional because your hormones are changing.”
“You have sex, don’t you? A speculum is no different.”
“You do not need to worry about that yet. Your questions will be answered closer to the birth.”
“These are just the symptoms of menopause. They come with being a woman.”
As a midwife, I am often seeing patients after they have experienced medical gaslighting with a previous provider. Unfortunately, it is all too common in all healthcare involving trans people, BIPOC folks and women. In reproductive healthcare there is an added vulnerability because it involves sexual organs and body parts that may have endured trauma. There is often shame, lived trauma, and authority imbalances that can be triggering.
Advocating for one’s self in these spaces can be very difficult. Allow me to validate your experience. It is extremely hard, insanely expensive, and inherently ableist to ask for better care in our healthcare system. Period. Unfortunately, many women will likely experience some degree of dismissiveness by a healthcare professional. To best advocate for yourself and get the care you deserve, I have curated a list of tips.
Here are a few of my tips to aid in getting the care you deserve:
1. Take an advocate with you.
This can be your partner, doula, or a very vocal friend. There will be another person to hear what is being said and reinforce your concerns. Additionally, bullies are usually less likely to “attack” when they are outnumbered.
2. Ask questions.
Keep a list of your questions. Clarify what is stated to you regarding your care with reflective responses like, “I am hearing you say that the test is not necessary until my symptoms are worse.”
Unfortunately, time is not a luxury of most doctors (the system sucks for them too). So start with your most pressing and relevant questions. If you are pregnant, set a reminder alert to go off during your appointment to avoid forgetting to ask. Pregnancy brain is real.
3. Take notes.
When you are triggered and adrenaline is heightened, memory is not always the best. This will help you point back to their words, dismissiveness and potential negligence.
4. Explicitly state what you need from them.
Providers work for you. If there is a test you want or do not want, state this clearly. “I came for the hormonal lab work but I do not want a Pap smear this visit.”
5. Acknowledge their legal responsibility.
Remind them that they are healthcare providers with a responsibility to care for you. If they are unable to do so, ask for a referral to another provider.
6. Switch providers.
Fire them! There are more doctors, nurses, midwives, etc. in the world. Get a new one. If you are non-confrontational, you do not have to let them know that you will never see them again. If you are in the middle of birth, ask your support person to get a new nurse. Trust me, it is worth it and NEVER too late to switch.
Again, advocating for yourself will not be easy. Be proud that you are even considering getting better care. Start with one thing you can do for yourself during the next visit. Breaking down the next steps can make it a bit more accessible and less anxiety-inducing.
I acknowledge that it should not be your responsibility as a patient to do this type of work but here we are. The current system struggles to offer care and time. Medical gaslighting will be resolved by patients who stand up for the care they deserve.
Jessica Diggs is a Licensed Midwife working in a solo practice in Los Angeles. She supports people and families through holistic gynecological care, home birth services, and conception support. Jessica has a skill and love for making childbirth and reproductive education digestible and accessible for all people. Midwifery is More is her latest publication where she shares her thoughts as a midwife. When she’s not talking birth and bodies, she loves hosting dinner parties, eating, and devouring a good book.