A second opinion on medical gaslighting

Image by: Katharine Sung

We shouldn’t have to convince doctors to take us seriously.

Most of us don’t look forward to a doctor’s visit—they’re even worse when we have to worry about healthcare workers dismissing our concerns or refusing to listen. Women in particular have complained about this phenomenon since long before the term “medical gaslighting” existed. 

The importance of self-advocacy when accessing medical care can’t be overstated. As we move away from depending on our parents to advocate for us in medical situations, learning to navigate the healthcare system on our own is daunting. However, it can mean the difference between getting the care we need and delayed access to that care. 

Talking about our health with strangers is awkward and makes us vulnerable. Unfortunately, not all doctors are understanding or respectful of patient vulnerability.

In Canada, we depend on a system already under intense strain. Even after the worst of the pandemic, patients are opting to access private care because the public system can’t meet their needs. Healthcare workers being overworked and underpaid is a combination that continues to drive nurses and other professionals out of the country.

It’s easy to be apathetic when you’re overworked, but in a field like medicine, apathy can mean the difference between life and death, even when things seem minor. Doctors are professionals who know best and want the best for their patients most of the time. 

The key is striking a balance between trust in doctors and patient autonomy, but challenging the word of a medical professional as a patient is easier said than done. 

Anxiety remains a barrier to self-advocacy because of the power dynamic inherent to the doctor-patient relationship. We shouldn’t assume most doctors aren’t doing their best, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to insist, kindly, on a different test or second opinion when necessary.

However, even in a public healthcare system, not everyone has equal access. It’s a privilege to be able to seek additional advice or testing. Residents of remote areas, people with disabilities, and those who depend on walk-in clinics because there aren’t enough family doctors are just a few examples of groups with different experiences of the system.

Racist and misogynistic roots are another unfortunate reality of Western medicine, and these biases are deeply rooted. It only takes a quick Google search of the history of gynaecology to draw connections between medical advancement, the patriarchy, and colonialism. 

Women’s health concerns are frequently dismissed as simple anxiety, and the bodies of women and people of colour are chronically under researched. This discrepancy leaves these demographics more vulnerable to medical gaslighting and other consequences of unconscious bias. 

We have to be prepared to face dismissive comments and learn to respond in spite of the challenges the healthcare system poses. It’s possible to advocate for ourselves while showing respect for the medical professionals we’re dealing with. 

Getting turned away repeatedly with the same concerns can quickly erode already precarious trust in the healthcare system. We need policy change and better resources to relieve the system of the strain it’s under and provide patients with personalized solutions to their health concerns.

Positive experiences often come down to finding a doctor you can trust—a privilege to which there are many barriers. In a world where the internet gives us access to all the information and misinformation we could ever read and more, we need to feel the advice of medical professionals is designed to help us get better, not make us feel crazy.

Good health is worth being an inconvenience. 

Journal Editorial Board


Equity, Healthcare, medical gaslighting, medicine

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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