I'm being gaslit by my doctor. How do I advocate for myself? Tips for women and how to prepare for your appointment

A Calgary woman went viral after sharing her doctor dismissed a birth defect as hormonal issue. Here's what you should know.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

A senior woman of African decent, sits up on an exam table during a routine check-up with her doctor.  The doctor is seated in front of her and wearing scrubs as the two talk. Women have historically been ignored in the healthcare system. Here are expert tips on how to advocate for yourself at the doctor's. (Image via Getty)
Women have historically been ignored in the healthcare system. Here are expert tips on how to advocate for yourself at the doctor's. (Image via Getty)

For TikTok user Rachael (a.k.a @rockymountainrahch) a meeting with an ear, nose and throat specialist ended with frustration — and a large dose of misogyny. In the viral video, posted earlier this year, the Calgary-based woman shared her experience, recounting how the doctor, who ordered a CT scan for her, allegedly didn't look at the scans she'd waited four months for him to review before declaring that her nose-related issue was simply: "hormone issues."

As she would come to find out — after reportedly pushing for her doctor to actually log into his system and look at her CT scan — her issue actually stemmed from a birth defect.

"I was like, 'just because I'm a woman, I walked in here and you said hormone imbalance?,'" she said. "And then you don't even give me diet, exercise, nothing to fix my hormones; you don’t even tell me what hormones are imbalanced, you don’t have my blood test, you don’t have anything, you just tell me, 'Oh take a steroid spray, it's a hormone imbalance,' when it’s literally a birth defect in my head."

She's not alone in her experience. Women are more likely to be misdiagnosed than men across a variety of ailments. The stats, and experiences, are even worse for women of colour who often face discrimination and gaslighting in even larger numbers.

In 2022, tennis star Serena Williams shared her own experience of mistreatment within the healthcare system after the birth of her first child in 2017. Williams, who had a history of blood clots, was forced to advocate for herself when she found herself in excruciating pain, with nurses that wouldn't listen to her ask for a heparin drip, a drug used to prevent blood clots. Williams ended up having a life-threatening blood clot in one of her arteries.

Tennis: US Open: USA Serena Williams in action vs Australia Ajla Tomljanovic during womens singles third round match at Arthur Ashe Stadium. 
Flushing, NY 9/2/2022 
CREDIT: Erick W. Rasco (Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) 
(Set Number: X164137 TK1)
Tennis star Serena Williams opened up about her traumatizing experience with the healthcare system. (Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Despite this pattern, in 2020, the Canadian Institute of Health Research dedicated only 7 per cent of funding to women’s health research.

"Feeling overlooked by the healthcare system] is something that all women encounter," says Cally Wesson, CEO and President of BC Women’s Health Foundation, "the sort of gaslighting when you have symptoms you're sometimes told 'go home, have a glass of wine,' when in actual fact your symptoms are real and valid."

The reason for this medical gaslighting can't be linked to necessarily one thing, but rather, as Wesson notes, is yet another byproduct of a patriarchal western society; one that has historically favoured men and impacted various social systems.

Have you been misled or gaslit by a doctor? Contact us at yahoo.canada.lifestyle.editors@yahooinc.com and you could be featured in an upcoming Yahoo Canada article.

But the consequences of staying silent can be dire — and even deadly. In March of last year, Allison Holthoff, an Amherst, N.S. resident, died after reportedly waiting in the ER for over six hours — all while her condition rapidly deteriorated.

Holthoff's death came two years after the 2021 death of Mireille Mdjomouo in a Quebec hospital. The 44-year-old woman shared her experience of mistreatment in an online video, claiming staff at her Quebec hospital were administering penicillin, despite the fact she was allergic (Mdjomouo died of natural causes, per a coroner's report). And in October 2020, Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman in Quebec, died after a video of Echaquan being mistreated and insulted by hospital staff went viral.

A mature adult woman is at a routine medical appointment. Her healthcare provider is a Korean man. The patient is sitting on an examination table in a clinic. She is explaining her medical history. The kind doctor is listening intently.
Knowing your symptoms and advocating for yourself can help you get the care you need. (Image via Getty)

When it comes to advocating for yourself, Wesson advises women to arm themselves with as much factual info as they can before going into their appointment.

"Make sure you're aware of the good sources of true information," she says. "Don't rely on Doctor Google, but rely on the information that's on some of the Research Institute websites." Arming yourself means you can feel prepared to ask questions and push back if you feel like your concerns aren’t being heard or validated.

Given the state of the overworked healthcare system in Canada right now, experts also suggest prioritizing your concerns, focusing on your most urgent concerns to be addressed first. And despite any claims from a doctor that "everything is fine," don't be afraid to ask for a second or even a third opinion with another doctor.

Finally, Wesson advises surrounding yourself with a network of people to talk about your health and individual experiences, as a way to normalize the conversations and in essence, the experience. Like, for example, conversations around menopause. "Often women are ashamed or don't want to talk about their symptoms," Wesson says. "But yes, let's talk about it; because often if you have those conversations, you can at least have that validation of, beyond hot flashes, [saying] 'Oh yeah, I'm experiencing that," with friends. Those are things that are really very important going forward if we're going to change the landscape of women's health."

Low angle view of group of people in circle and holding their fists together during a group therapy session. People with fist put together during support group session.
Connecting women who are willing to openly talk about their symptoms can help you feel supported and validated while seeking care. (Image via Getty)

The tide is changing when it comes to misogyny in healthcare, even if incrementally so. Established as a combined effort between Alberta Women's Health Foundation, BC Women’s Health Foundation, and Women's College Hospital Foundation, the Women's Health Collective Canada is a network aimed at bringing data and care to Canadian women across the country. It includes funding medical research that addresses the needs of women and broadening the scope of women's health programs.

At BC Women's Hospital, they're creating a program in Midwife Women's Health centred around menopause. The program will eventually train physicians to do a rotation in menopause, but more importantly for research will establish a centre of excellence — a reputable and specialized space — in the country. "Let's say you do have a doctor in Edmonton that has a patient who is presenting really complex symptoms, they have somewhere that they can go as a resource," Wesson says.

But, as Wesson notes, there's still a way to go. "Women need to come together to really push that women's health research topics should be in the forefront," Wesson says. "As women, we often put our families first, put our careers first, everything, and we often don't take care of ourselves. [And] in some ways that might be a metaphor, so to speak, of why women's health research hasn't taken that profile that's needed."

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