Are We Entitled to Know Presidential Candidates' Health Info?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


August 17, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine. There has been tremendous argument and debate about Donald Trump's health.

Not so long ago, he took a visit to West Point. While there, he appeared to have trouble drinking a glass of water and navigating a ramp when he was done with his speech. You may remember that he kind of shuffled slowly down and looked like he needed the assistance of one of the military officers to make it down the ramp.

That led to a slew of speculation. Is there something wrong with President Trump? Does he have a neurologic condition? Has he suffered a stroke? Is there parkinsonism?

As I've said before, I don't think anybody should be diagnosing anyone without examining them. I don't approve, and I think it's unethical to try and guess or speculate about anybody's health if you haven't really had a chance to examine them. The people doing the speculating in the case of President Trump have not examined him.

There's also been concern, it needs to be pointed out, about other individuals who are running for office, most notably, Joe Biden. People have worried whether he has slurred speech. Is he suffering from the effects of being 78 years old, in terms of the energy or vim and vigor that he would bring to the office? [People are not speculating only about President] Trump.

There are certainly reasons to be concerned, and there have been in the past. Now, sometimes people say to let their doctors tell us about their health. I don't think that will work. It never has worked.

From Woodrow Wilson having a stroke and his wife running the country without anybody admitting it, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt hiding his polio, to John F. Kennedy hiding his Addison disease, and on and on, presidents have not squared with the public about their health, and their doctors certainly have not — in part because their loyalty goes to their patient, not to the nation.

With candidates running for the highest office at age 78 and 74 years, we are way past the time when we ought to change how we assess the health of our president and our presidential candidates. We should have an independent panel that I prefer would be appointed by the National Academy of Medicine.

This panel should be a nonpartisan, thorough group of experts, including neurology, psychiatry, internal medicine, and whatever we agree would be the kind of expertise you'd see in an executive physical done at one of our best hospitals. Let the candidates subject themselves to a day or two of exams, both mental and physical, and then let the report be made public.

Some will say that people have a right to their privacy. I don't agree that is true for the highest office in the land, especially when we're seeing candidates of this age contend for that office. We ought to know whether or not they have underlying conditions or risk factors that might impede their ability to perform the office.

I will say this: As much as I am for independent assessment and have been for decades, and as much as I'm for transparency and getting information out about our top candidates for office, president and vice president, I know that many people are not going to vote according to what somebody's physical exam reports.

That is fine. People may still say, "I support Donald Trump. I don't care whether he is slowing down or he has lost some balance, or whatever may or may not be true in his case. I support him, and I'm going to vote for him."

No one should argue that having a physical or mental health report on our candidates is the last word about what makes them worthwhile. I'm sure there are plenty of people with disabilities who would make excellent presidents but who don't hold a glass of water very well. I fully understand that.

I'm not arguing that we disqualify or rule out anybody for office. I am saying that we need transparency.

The most important job in the world ought not be, if you will, subject to a report from the president's own handpicked doctor. Whoever it is or whoever wants to be in that role ought to be willing to share their health status with the rest of us.

I'm Art Caplan from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you 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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