COMMENTARY

US Presidents and Candidates Should All Have Independent Health Reviews

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

August 23, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

Some of you watching this may remember Ronny Jackson. He once served as President Trump's White House physician. He's been in the news because he has moved on to become a congressman from Texas. He's in the House of Representatives and sits on the Armed Services Subcommittee, among other things.

He recently wrote a letter, which was signed by a dozen other Republican congressmen, demanding that President Joe Biden undergo a cognitive examination. Jackson said we should have the right to know that the president is functioning and is cognitively there.

Now, I didn't take this request very seriously coming from Jackson, partly due to the source and partly due to the politics. You may remember that, when Jackson was the White House physician, he gave glowing reports about President Trump's health, ignored the fact that at the time the president was obese, and proclaimed him to be in wonderful health. He also proclaimed him to be 6' 2", which in fact, doesn't corroborate with what people have computed from pictures of him — he's not that tall.

It seemed he was yielding to the president's wishes that he be reported as taller than he is and lighter than he was. It made much of what he had to say about the president in glowing terms suspect.

Jackson also got in trouble because he underwent a scathing review from the Department of Defense inspector general who found that he had abused subordinates, made inappropriate sexual comments, had been drinking while on duty as White House physician, and was distributing drugs like Ambien without a prescription to many people on White House trips.

Indeed, I was a person back then who suggested we might even have to consider pulling his medical license because he seems to engage in unprofessional behavior. That didn't happen, and as I said, he's now in Congress.

Regardless of the source and maybe the politics of trying to impugn now another, older president, President Biden, shouldn't we finally do something about the independent medical assessment of our president and vice president?

I've long called for the creation of an independent panel to annually review the health of presidents via a thorough exam — not the one that President Trump passed under Jackson, which, if you remember, was the repeating of five or six words from memory. It was the camera, dog, cinema [word test]. You're good. You can do the recall backward.

We need a careful examination by a board of experts, not only by one doctor who has a single specialty or background. They should be appointed, if you will, by the National Academy of Medicine or some other independent group. We should not ask the White House physician or the president's personal physician to give us an assessment because the conflict of interest is obvious. It's just not the right role for the public to really know about the health of their leader.

I might even extend it to say that major political candidates running for president or vice president ought to undergo the same independent examination by a board of five to seven physicians who then can report to us the health of people who want to be or who are president.

Does that mean automatic disqualification if there were health concerns? No. Certainly, you could run for president, have health issues, and still be elected. People may say they don't care. People may say, "As long as you're functioning, we don't care about health problems that might be identified in an annual physical." I do think that, in this day and age, we have the right to know.

Although I don't support Dr Jackson's call for a cognitive examination of President Joe Biden, I do support the idea that independent health assessment is long overdue in this country for our presidents, vice presidents, and presidential and vice presidential candidates.

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

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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