Medical gaslighting affects women more than men; here's what it is and how to push back

Posted at 5:18 AM, May 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 06:26:23-04

(WXYZ) — As National Women's Health Week continues, we wanted to tell you all about a term called medical gaslighting.

Earlier this week we put a spotlight on autoimmune disorders. It's a group of diseases that affect women by as much as 4 to 1, and many struggle to get the correct diagnosis.

Their symptoms are dismissed a minor, called imaginary or psychological. That's medical gaslighting, and it can lead to years of unnecessary pain, suffering and humiliation. But, tnhere are ways you can get the care you deserve.

Elizabeth Maraldo, 52, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She says she lives with numbness and tingling in her arms, legs and body, sometimes on a daily basis. But the mental toll is just as heavy.

"I get emotional thinking about it. It's a struggle," Maraldo said.

Part of that struggle was getting the proper diagnosis. Elizabeth says it took 12 years and countless trips to the ER. Her MS symptoms were dismissed as nerves

"To the point where I was in going to the emergency room so much that I would have a nurse come out and say, 'can you just take this anxiety medication?'" she said.

Maraldo's experience is an example of medical gaslighting, which can take many forms. In medical gaslighting, a patient's symptoms may be dismissed as minor, mainly psychological or blamed on unrelated issues like weight.

A University of Colorado study found women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a mental illness – such as anxiety – while experiencing known symptoms of heart disease.

"Go see a psychiatrist. That's what I would get told, you need to go seek therapy for anxiety. And that wasn't the case," Maraldo said.

Medical gaslighting can lead to delayed treatment and misdiagnosis.

So how do you push back? By speaking up.

"Stop and draw awareness to it, so that everyone's paying attention at the right time," Dr. Esther Young, a neurologist at Beaumont Health, said.

Young says you are your best advocate and don't be afraid to refocus the conversation on your symptoms and your needs.

"If you feel like that provider hasn't heard you, say it again," Young said.

That gives the provider a chance to reconsider. You can also bring a friend or relative as an advocate.

If the patient-provider relationship still isn't working, it may be time to move on. That's what Elizabeth did. She found the right doctor and got the right diagnosis.

All of the doctors I spoke to this week say autoimmune disorders are so difficult to diagnose because they are slow in developing and have such wide-ranging symptoms.

It can be frustrating for people looking for a proper diagnosis.

And it's important to let your provider know how you feel so you can chart a better path moving forward.