How much health data should candidates disclose?

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a closer look at just how much the public has a right to know about the health of the American president or a presidential candidate, and what earlier presidents have and have not disclosed about their personal health histories.

For that, we turn to Dr. Howard Markel. He’s director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. He’s also author of a number of books on health and infectious diseases.

Dr. Markel, welcome.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign says that her pneumonia is not severe. Just how serious can pneumonia be?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL, University of Michigan: Well, pneumonia can be quite serious.

People can die of it. They used to call it the old man’s friend in the years before antibiotics. But now with taking antibiotics, taking care of yourself and resting, it is quite an easy thing to treat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We saw — I guess it was just reported this afternoon on Politico that Hillary Clinton’s staff is saying she doesn’t prefer to drink water often. Could that have contributed to what happened yesterday?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Absolutely.

Think about it. You’re tired, you’re sick, you’re out in the sun, which dehydrates us all, whether we’re aware of it or not. And that could very well have been what caused that wobbly step that everyone has seen and talked about today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you, both of these campaigns, both Trump and Clinton are now saying, in the next few days, they are going to be releasing fuller medical histories, we’re going to know more about their medical story.

What do the American voters have a right to know? What should people know in order to know whether these two individuals are healthy or not?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Well, I think it’s very important.

And I think American voters do have the right to know about the health of the people who are running for the most powerful job in the world. It is very easy to present one’s health history, and yet it’s become very tangled and diffuse, just like people’s tax returns.

But I think both these pieces of information are valid for people to ask about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what are some aspects of their health that you think should be disclosed when they do put these histories out?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Well, I think just the basic top-to-bottom physical examination, mental health examination, a recording of the medications they may or may not take, past illnesses, illnesses that may run in their family, a general medical history.

Now, remember, this hasn’t really been done all that much since 1992. And it was Paul Tsongas who didn’t tell the American people precisely about his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He said he was cured. He wasn’t. Had he won the rest of the campaign and run for president, he probably would have been quite ill during his presidency.

So these things do matter. And I think it’s one more piece of information that we as voters have a right to know about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, there are other examples as well. People think of John F. Kennedy, Addison’s disease.

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a number of other presidents.

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Yes. And really back to Kennedy, or Roosevelt or even Woodrow Wilson’s health, these were an era where medicine could not do all that much for these serious diseases.

Today, more and more people are living full and healthy lives with chronic illnesses. And I have got to tell you, having turned 50 myself quite a few years ago, the warranty on your body runs out at that point, and we all have problems with our bodies.

And so Mrs. Clinton’s pneumonia is community-acquired. It’s a very normal thing to do to contract, particularly when you’re shaking hands, and working a grueling campaign, and flying on airplanes and stuff. And I have to tell you that most doctors would give the advice, why don’t you take a break from this grueling campaign for a day or so and rest, like any human being whose body gets sick?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you mentioned age.

Hillary Clinton is 68. Donald Trump is 70. How much is age a factor in this, as you describe, grueling job they both want to take on?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Well, it’s hard to say with each 70-year-old. One 70-year-old may be quite fatigued by this type of a schedule. Other people — and it seems Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton are those types — are energized by it.

So, it really is a case-by-case person — case-by-case situation. But, you know, most people over 65 should get a pneumonia shot and also should get a flu shot every year. So that’s something you can do.

But it’s hard to say. These sounds like extremely energetic people. They sound like very healthy people. I’m a little puzzled why they just don’t tell us what’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, again, as we prepare to see whatever these campaigns release, how will we know we’re getting the full story?

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: That is difficult, and we don’t know.

And particularly the briefer the report is, there may be stuff that you’re not seeing, or you could get a data dump, like John McCain did a few years back where he released thousands of pages of his medical history and gave journalists only about three or four hours to review them.

I’m a medical professor, and I couldn’t do it in that time. So there’s different ways that people can be somewhat shifty or less than transparent with their health data. I think it’s high time in this modern era of great medicine and great health prevention that our presidential candidates just tell us what is going on in their bodies. And we can make those decisions one way or the other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be looking for what each campaign has to say in the coming days.

Dr. Howard Markel, we thank you.

DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on our Web site, you can find a guide to pneumonia, what causes it and what makes it a potentially dangerous illness. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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