My doctor doesn't take me seriously: Tips for handling dismissive physicians.
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
A simple google search using the above ‘My doctor doesn’t take me seriously’ brings up a harrowing number of individuals desperate for advice regarding how to handle such a happening.
How do I get my doctor to take me seriously?
Doctors will not listen to me.
How can I get a doctor to believe my symptoms?
It is truly quite infuriating that this is such a common event. Nearly everyone with chronic illness/pain will have at least one story (usually multiple stories) regarding how their health concerns were dismissed and trivialized.
Case Study: CFS- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as ME, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis)
Let’s look at chronic fatigue, for instance.
75-85% of individuals who receive this diagnosis are women. It is a difficult condition to diagnose as there are no observable bio-markers to verify organic disease.
A 2017 study (Lian & Robson, 2017) reported the experience of women with CFS in their interaction with the medical community. Though the study is specific to chronic fatigue, these experiences will resonate strongly with the experiences of women with other illnesses where the symptoms are not visible (e.g. fibromyalgia) or hard to diagnose (e.g. endometriosis, IBS,MS).
Do the following experiences remind you of your own experience?
Lack of medical knowledge:
“At times I have been met with great scepticism about my illness and zero knowledge about it.”
"It is upsetting how little knowledge the health services have about ME and how rude they are; they have no knowledge of the illness and don’t listen to the patient at all”.
“. . . my GP [. . .] examined me thoroughly and maintained that she couldn’t help me because ‘there are so many like you and we don’t know what to do with you’
Not being understood
“The loneliness and helplessness one experiences as a sufferer is reinforced by the feeling of not being understood”
“. . . met with zero help and zero understanding.”
“For all these years my GP has treated me like a hypochondriac”
“It was absolutely shocking for me not to be believed when I was so poorly”
“Some doctors didn’t ‘believe’ in the illness”
Illness reduced to mental condition
“I have had doctors at the hospital who laugh at me. They ask if I am one of those stressed housewife types before I have even opened my mouth. Or they explain it as mental”
“I feel that my new GP thinks I am lazy and anxious”.
“I am treated like a leper”.
“She [GP] asked me not to come back to her with this illness. I was not referred—‘no one wants patients like you”
Fighting the system
“I found that my GP was so determined that the illness was mentally conditioned that she didn’t feel she needed to investigate any further”
“It’s incredible how much I’ve had to fight to be believed, as well as to get what I´m entitled to [. . .] It feels as if I’m fighting an uphill battle, being disbelieved about every single thing”
So how does one handle being disbelieved and gaslighted by one’s doctor?
1. Recognise the signs:
We often rely on doctors to investigate and explain to us why we are unwell or in pain. We trust in them. When they turn their back on us and dismiss our concerns, this can make us feel like ‘it’s all the head’. Do not fall into this trap. Trust your instinct. Recognize that your doctor is trivializing your concerns. Your health concerns are valid.
2. Understand why it is happening:
Medical gaslighting is not new. In the past, women’s health concerns have been dismissed as ‘hysteria’ or the ‘ramblings of a crazy woman’.
We often reject and deny what we cannot understand and explain. The same applies to doctors (fortunately, not all of them) who faced with symptoms that they cannot understand, choose to take the easiest way out and blame the patient or their mental health.
3. Realise that not all doctors are the same:
Being dismissed and ridiculed by a doctor can cause immense distress. As a result, we sometimes fear reaching out to the medical community again. Do seek a second opinion. Do seek a new doctor and keep persevering until you find one willing to listen and investigate.
4. Keep a record of your symptoms:
An accurate and upto date record of your symptoms is a critical element of your health journey. Ensure that you have copies of all the results from the medical tests/investigations that you have undergone. Keep a record of your medical appointments and the outcomes of these as well as your response to medications prescribed.
Acknowledge that the journey ahead of you may be a distressing and challenging one. No one wants the additional burden of having to fight for treatment in addition to coping with frightening and confusing health symptoms. However, this is the frustrating reality that many have to face. Be ready to self-advocate and make yourself heard.
6. Seek support
Emotional and social support are critical to navigating health challenges. Enlist the support of a close friend, relative or partner. Ask them to accompany you to appointments and back your requests for further investigations/treatments. Having such a support may push your doctor to consider your symptoms more seriously.
7. Join a support group
Used wisely, online support groups are a wonderful source of support and advice. Join the Unapologetic Women Collective on Facebook, a support group dedicated to empowering women with chronic illness, pain and disability.
Lian, O. S., & Robson, C. (2017). “It´ s incredible how much I´ ve had to fight.” Negotiating medical uncertainty in clinical encounters. International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being, 12(1), 1392219.