Presidential candidate medical records?

The New York Times has a very long article by Lawrence Altman, a physician and medical reporter for the newspaper, about the uncertainties regarding the medical histories of the four major party candidates for President and Vice-President. John McCain, a cancer survivor and the candidate who would become the oldest President were he elected, has intensified the interest by his choice of running mate, the inexperienced and probably unqualified Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Joe Biden also has a major medical issue in his background (two berry aneurysms). There are sufficient unknowns about the medical records of each of them, at least according to Altman, that more information should be forthcoming. Obama and Palin, both in their mid-forties, are much less worrisome, although Obama has released scant information and Palin, none.

I will confess to being ambivalent about the clamor for the candidates to offer up their medical records to the press. The Palin choice makes the problem of a melanoma recurrence for McCain highly relevant to the election. Were he to have a recurrence or spread of melanoma, even if he didn't succumb during his term of office, intensive therapy and the disease itself might well require invoking the 25th Amendment. Presto. Sarah Palin is Acting President. At least. On the other hand, anybody's medical record is likely to have many things of a private nature that would have no effect on their ability to carry out the responsibilities of office. Private medical records should be just that. Private. Of course once you embark on a candidacy for the highest office in government, you lose much of your privacy, and not just your medical privacy. Still, that doesn't require a total loss of privacy.

Is there a solution? One might be to have a small panel of well respected medical experts from relevant specialties, bound by confidentiality, review the medical records of all the candidates, in their entirety, and prepare a relevant summary of things the public should know. Not every detail of a medical history is fair game. Some public guidelines could be developed. The discussion would be useful.

Like Altman, I'd like the information to be public that would allow some judgment if McCain's melanoma was a stage II or stage III. It's relevant. But even politicians I don't like have a right to speak to their doctors personally and privately. We need to be able to sort this out for future elections. Why not start now, before we know whose ox will get gored?

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I don't agree we need to know the health records. At all. Your logic suggests ploygraph to make sure they aren't concealing a policy position....whoops. Or a comprehensive review of death risk- say from assassination or windsurfing or cowboying in a jet. And then what- comprehensive generic review?

By bikeMonkey (not verified) on 21 Oct 2008 #permalink

What's strange to me about this is, once a person is president, don't they routinely report on his (or someday her) annual physical? (Conducted by Navy doctors, IIRC.) Clearly at that point they think we have a right to know... something, if not everything. And they must have some kind of standards for what is "public should know" information. Otherwise either the occupants of the White House have had extraordinary luck, or they're just lying every time they pronounce them "in excellent health."

Could not those standards be applied to the major party nominees? On a voluntary basis, if not an official one?

I think the danger of knowing too much about the candidates' physical health is that it would be one more thing (like breakfast beverage preference or bowling score or hairstyle) that could influence voters' choice whether or not it had any bearing on whether the candidate was up for the job. (See FDR or JFK for examples of men with serious health challenges who nonetheless carried out the duties of office.) Americans are ableist, frightened of illness, and prone to holding seekers of high office to standards they wouldn't hold their brain surgeon.

As for McCain, I agree that his history of melanoma is worrisome. However, given his age alone, IIRC actuarial tables indicate it's more likely than not that he wouldn't survive one term in office, let alone two. A vote for McCain is a vote for President Palin, and I don't need to see his medical records to know that.

No offense to those of McCain's age intended. I could well vote for someone his age if I had confidence in his/her VP pick.

caia: I agree with you. I'm Biden's age and too old already. What will I be like in 8 years? (or 4? or 2?). Things happen fast at my age.