Medical gaslighting: How to advocate for yourself at the doctors

What to do when you’re really not well, but your doctor just won’t listen.
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Most of us have heard stories of our friends, family members or colleagues copping a “periods can be painful” or “have you tried ibuprofen?” when they present to a doctor in pain.

Anecdotes aside, research shows that doctors are more likely to mistreat women’s pain. Researchers at the University of Miami (2021) found when male and female patients expressed the same amount of pain, observers viewed female patients’ pain as less intense.

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Although pain isn’t the only thing that doctors can overlook in women, as other studies reveal women are more likely to be sent home from the ER in the middle of a heart attack or stroke.    

Femma CEO and women’s health GP Dr Emma Rees says this is because women’s health issues have previously been regarded as taboo and embarrassing, making solving them a more frustrating and difficult process.

“Women’s health is still an evolving area, and more research is being conducted meaning we now have new management pathways for conditions that may have previously been managed differently,” Dr Rees says.    

To get the answers you need from your doctor, here’s how you can advocate for yourself… 

And Just Like That...
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie in And Just Like That…, the actress dealt with chronic pain. (Credit: HBO)


Dr Rees says consultations need two elements to be effective. Firstly, the doctor’s clinical expertise. Second, the patient’s knowledge about their experience. “By bringing together and interpreting all this information, the opportunity of the consultation is optimised,” Dr Rees explains.

“Patients have to be ready to advocate for themselves within a consultation, because there is no other way of a doctor gathering important information regarding their experience and concerns or create realistic management plans without this valuable information.”    

It helps to keep a record of any symptoms – whether in the notes app on your phone or a full-fledged journal – to provide your doctor with as much information as possible.      

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We’ve all had moments of disbelief at how quickly a consultation with a GP can fly by, and if your problem requires thorough investigation, you might not get the answers you need from one 15-minute appointment.    

“If you know that you find appointments challenging, and many people do, you could ask reception to book a longer appointment to allow time for a more considered discussion, ”Dr Rees explains.

“Some people will send in letters before their appointments, and this can also be a helpful way to make the time as effective as possible.”   

Dr Rees explains that doctors can often spend a long time trying to get answers, meaning there is an expectation that you will go back to see your doctor rather than getting a snap diagnosis in a one-off consultation.   

Amy Schumer
Comedian Amy Schumer battled endometriosis for years before surgery. (Credit: Getty)


Though doctors don’t want to do their jobs badly (who does?), Dr Rees says factors including communication skills, expertise and personal experiences can impact the doctor-patient relationship.    

“It is important to remember that this relationship is unique to you and the doctor that you are seeing and doesn’t necessarily reflect the relationship you will have with another doctor,” she explains. “If you feel you are not being heard, or that your concerns are not being taken seriously, it is definitely worth making an appointment to see a different doctor.”   

Though it’s disheartening to plough through multiple doctors, it is OK to seek alternative opinions, because we all deserve to know what’s going on with our bodies.

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