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What is medical gaslighting and why does it affect mostly women?

Published Aug 3, 2022

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Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia, 2020 asserts that between 8% and 15% of all hospital admissions in the US are the result of diagnostic error, which includes missed, incorrect or delayed diagnosis.

A thorough history, including information from family members and other medical professionals, and a thorough physical examination are fundamental steps that, when combined, will produce the correct diagnosis in more than 80% of cases.

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By contrast, failure to follow these steps results in 40% of missed diagnoses.

Founder and chief physician of Dr Concierge SA, a Sandton-based concierge medical practice, Dr Lelo Latakgomo holds a medical degree from UCT and is an experienced family physician who is passionate about all things associated with primary health, preventative care, and optimising health for the entire family, from children to grandparents.

She spoke to IOL about medical gaslighting.

Gaslighting occurs when someone has the ability to make you doubt your own feelings and thoughts. Additionally, it may make you feel disregarded or demeaned.

Dr Latakgomo gives more insight into medical gaslighting below:

Medical gaslighting can affect anyone. However, it has been shown that it occurs frequently among women and people of colour.

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Doctors are taught to take a patient’s medical history, listen carefully to what the patient is complaining about, and then examine the patient. Based on what they hear and see, the doctor will then give a diagnosis.

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One of two things might have caused a misdiagnosis: either the patient didn't provide enough details for the doctor to make an accurate diagnosis, or the doctor didn't obtain a complete medical history.

A patient may report a doctor to the medical board if they believe they are not receiving proper care on the grounds that the doctor violated the medical profession’s ethical code.

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Dr Lelo Latakgomo, family physician. Picture: Supplied

It’s hard to discern what happens during a doctor-patient consultation, due to the fact that neither you nor we are aware of the information the patient is communicating to the physician.

The hierarchy we use as doctors is essential because it helps us prioritise and concentrate on life-threatening symptoms before moving on to less serious ones, because we are aware of the consequences of choosing option 5 in the list of complaints instead of opting to treat the first initial symptoms you complained about.

It’s also your responsibility as a patient to ask your doctor why they are focusing on 5 and 2, and are the rest being addressed? You need to understand. However, if your doctor is being dismissive then they are in the wrong through no fault of your own.

It’s the doctor’s responsibility to explain why they are focusing on particular complaints and not everything all at once. And it also serves as a reminder, because at the end of the day doctors are also human. Sometimes in the crux of the emergency we focus on preserving life more than convenience.

This is not to say that we dismiss your complaint about pain in a specific area, but it works in such a way that I am responsible for treating the cause of your pain rather than the symptoms.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.

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