Risks in ‘Full’ Disclosure of Presidential Candidates’ Health Records

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on September 13, 2016.

Much has been said, and speculated, about Hillary Clinton’s health recently, including well before it was known that her doctor had diagnosed pneumonia last week. The New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, have called for presidential candidates to be more transparent about their medical records.

It’s worth noting, as more information comes out and as more is sought, that full disclosure of medical records would almost certainly cause more harm than good.

Serving up certain details of any candidate’s health, and past life, in a voracious social-media environment in which some elements of the media focus on “gotcha!” journalism and opponents leap to make attack ads has the potential to focus disproportionate attention on a candidate’s health–rather than a person’s readiness to govern and her or his positions on major issues. It makes sense that voters need to know whether candidates have a documented medical problem that could compromise their ability to serve as president or prevent them from completing their full term in office. That said, it seems possible to devise a formal system that both major parties could buy into, ensuring that such information is produced, rather than imploring individual candidates to produce it themselves.

 It’s easy to see the argument for disclosure if a presidential candidate has, say, serious heart disease or cancer, conditions that could affect one’s ability to serve. Now imagine the frenzy on social media if a candidate’s medical records indicated an episode of depression years before, or a sexually transmitted disease, or whether a male candidate uses Viagra, or if a candidate of either gender had been abused. These are points that understandably involve privacy. Full disclosure would tilt the spotlight to these issues, probably setting off long discussions on cable news about whether such issues should even be discussed. Not that long ago, well before the advent of social media and 24/7 cable news coverage, Thomas Eagleton was forced off the Democratic ticket after revealing that some of his past treatment for depression had involved electric shock. Imagine the constant focus on such information today.

The New York Times editorial seemed to suggest that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton’s ages signify a special need to know all of their medical records: “Now Americans are deciding between Mr. Trump, who is 70, and Mrs. Clinton, who is 68. Whoever prevails will have to deal with round-the-clock demands, so it seems entirely relevant to inquire about their medical histories and current health.” Well, a healthy 48-year-old president could drop dead of a heart attack while jogging. It seems not far-fetched to suggest that unless a candidate has a known debilitating or potentially life-threatening medical condition, the American people would base their vote on other grounds–and take their chances on a candidate’s health in office, mindful always of who the vice presidential nominee is and that person’s ability to serve if needed. John F. Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. presidency, and he had serious health conditions. How might his close race against Richard Nixon have been affected by social media focus on his physical health?

The Washington Post editorial said that “The goal must be to assure voters that they have disclosed anything that could hinder them while in office or create a risk that they could not serve a full term.” To meet this objective in future presidential elections, candidates from each party could agree to answer two medical questions: Do you have a medical condition that would compromise your ability to serve in office; and, if so, what is it? And, do you have a medical condition that might result in your being unable to complete your term in office; and, if so, what is that condition?

The answers to these questions along with their medical records could be submitted to a panel of three former surgeons general of the U.S. (or a similar group). Candidates could, of course, disclose more information if they wished to. This could be done soon after candidates are nominated so that a late-breaking health revelation does not unduly influence election results. Having an authoritative, objective panel certify the answers would be a way to identify problems if any exist without potentially making public decades’ worth of private information. The physicians on such a panel would have the ability to exercise medical judgment if needed and would be pledged to confidentiality. Even a panel of surgeons general may not quell the conspiracy theorists who will always be out there, but such a system could satisfy serious media and voters would have the information they need on candidates’ health without information that could both violate candidates’ privacy and distract from the larger issues at stake in U.S. presidential elections.


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