Intended for healthcare professionals


Sixty seconds on . . . medical gaslighting

BMJ 2022; 378 doi: (Published 09 August 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;378:o1974
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. Kent

Is this something to do with the Ingrid Bergman movie?

That would be the 1944 film Gaslight, which tells the story of a man who manipulates his wife to such an extent that she doubts her own sanity. Since then, the term gaslighting has been widely used to describe any form of emotional abuse that makes someone question their own grasp of reality.

Is Medical Gaslighting the sequel?

No, it’s a term usually used to describe when a medical professional wrongly blames a patient’s symptoms on psychological factors such as stress or anxiety or tells them they are not really sick.

Never heard of it—I think you’re imagining it

Patients are increasingly sharing their stories of medical gaslighting on social media sites such as Instagram with the hashtag #medicalgaslighting. And two articles on the subject published in the New York Times this year have prompted thousands of responses.12 In one article a woman described going to a cardiologist with chest pains and being told to simply exercise more. Another woman who described weight loss, losing her hair, and developing a full body rash in her 20s was told by her male doctor that she was “young, healthy, and just lazy.” She was later given a diagnosis of the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease.

Are women particularly at risk?

Women have reported that health problems such as endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome are often downplayed or dismissed by doctors. And studies have shown that, when compared with men, women face longer waits to be given a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease, for example.3 But black people, geriatric patients, and LGBT+ people are also more likely to have their symptoms dismissed without a full investigation.

Is it mainly doctors dismissing patients’ concerns?

Not just that. A female Canadian doctor described being gaslit several times by colleagues in professional settings. She described specialist colleagues using their status to try to convince her of something she knew to be false or not in the best interests of her patients.4

Is medical gaslighting becoming more common?

The term has been used widely in connection with long covid, particularly early on in the pandemic. Some patients who were still experiencing symptoms months after infection with SARS-CoV-2 thought that they were not treated seriously, or investigated fully, by doctors.56