It happened to Serena Williams. It recently happened to my friend Stephanie Rivera, the CEO of Lazarex Cancer Foundation. It’s also happened to me.
It’s medical gaslighting — dismissing, downplaying or not believing patients when they share their symptoms in a healthcare setting. This is a far more common experience for women than men, and this month — Women’s History Month — is a necessary time to talk about it so we can ignite change.
It seems like the most common response to addressing women’s health and disparities is to focus on boosting awareness and education among women about risk factors, screening options and early detection. There’s no question this is important work. I’ve committed my life to it.
But putting the responsibility on women to address the issue of medical gaslighting isn’t fair or right, and it won’t solve this problem. This is definitely one thing we can and are taking off the plate of the women patients of the world by agreeing that the healthcare industry needs to increase its awareness about how it fails to listen to women when they share their symptoms and stories. There needs to be a conscious raising among medical practitioners to identify their unconscious biases and adopt active practices that permit women to be heard, diagnosed and fairly treated.
The data are abundantly clear there’s room for growth in this area.
—Seventy-two percent of women say they’ve experienced medical gaslighting.
—Seventeen percent of women say they have been ignored, “dismissed,” or felt like they had to “prove” their symptoms to doctors.
—Twenty-five percent to 37 percent of patients of color were less likely to receive appropriate treatments for blood clots, suggesting even greater effects of medical gaslighting for women of color.
This isn’t just about making female patients feel heard — although that is important. Gaslighting minimizes women, making them feel “less than” and directly affecting their health, health outcomes and exacerbating health disparities. When healthcare providers “downplay their symptoms or delay treating them,” women pay the price, with their conditions often not getting discovered until the late stages. There is an abundance of data showcasing this:
—When it comes to cancer care, women are twice as likely as men to report symptoms five or more times before they’re diagnosed.
—Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States — and can affect any age. But doctors continue to miss it in women, leading to late diagnoses or preventable deaths.
—Women’s symptoms are often attributed to stress, hormones or depression.
—And it takes, on average, 10 years for women to be diagnosed with endometriosis because doctors don’t recognize the condition or know how to treat it.
Women make up 50 percent of the U.S. population, and we must acknowledge that it’s time to do better. Think about a woman you love — your mother, partner, sister, aunt, friend or neighbor. Start with how you want them to be treated when they’re in pain or struggling, and then ask if that’s how you treat all patients.
If you’re a healthcare provider who wants to try something new, grow in this area and be part of a solution:
—Take a course on unconscious and implicit bias. Read books and listen to podcasts on the subject.
—Investigate and read more studies on the various ways cardiovascular disease, cancer, endometriosis and more are presenting in women.
—Read firsthand accounts from women describing what gaslighting looks and feels like so you can better recognize it.
—Conduct surveys of your patients to determine how “heard” they feel.
—Read a book or listen to a talk about how to become a better listener.
—Talk within your organizations about what you’re actively doing during clinic visits to ensure that patients feel listened to.
Listening to and believing women is critically important. It’s time to double down and ensure women patients feel seen, heard and adequately treated — not only in March but all year.