Should Presidential Candidates Have Their Health Verified?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


January 21, 2016

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I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center.

Could Donald Trump be in the news any more than he has been? I doubt it. But yet again, he got himself in the news—not for saying something insulting or a little out-there. What he got himself in the news for recently was that his doctor, Harold Bornstein, declared him "the most physically fit, healthiest person ever to run for the presidency."[1] That's quite a claim.

I don't believe that it actually rests on any empirical evidence because we don't know a lot about previous presidents and their physical condition. It sounds like Donald Trump's physician has swallowed the Donald Trump juice and is basically sounding like Donald Trump: "Best ever." "Most healthy."

One could quibble here and ask: Wasn't Donald Trump declared 4-F (ie, medically or psychologically unfit) when he was drafted in Vietnam?[2] Didn't he have medical reasons that got him disqualified from service? If he's the healthiest person ever, how does that square up with his past?

I don't really want to dwell on Dr Bornstein and the claims about "The Donald" in terms of his health status. What this declaration does is open the door to a bigger public policy problem. Why aren't all presidential candidates given independent physicals by an independent group of doctors? That office is so important and is so momentous in terms of war power and controlling our nuclear arsenal. It's obvious that voters should have some information about the health status of people who want to hold the presidential office. However, I don't think it should be from their personal physician. In fact, having a personal physician write an assessment or offer an assessment of a candidate gets pretty close to touching on privacy and confidentiality.

I think what we need is a group of physicians appointed by a bipartisan group who can examine the candidate, look at their record, and say, "This person is at risk for Alzheimer's," which may have been true for Ronald Reagan. It could have, perhaps, been detected in his second run at office. Dick Cheney, with his bad heart problems, might have had to stand as a potential candidate for president or vice president and have his health examined. Thomas Eagleton, many years ago, suffered from depression and had been through many treatments for that. Is this something that the American people care about?

I'm not arguing that having an illness—mental or physical—or having any type of dysfunction disqualifies you from being president. What I am saying is that it doesn't make any sense to rely on a doctor who is a partisan advocate for the candidate—and often a friend of the candidate—and have them tell us that they believe there's no health problems with their friend as well as their patient. I think we need something that's more independent. I think we need a group that can really stand outside the politics, stand outside the personal associations, and give the American people information that they then may choose to believe is relevant or not.

I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.