The Blog

Is Someone's Health Our Business?

"She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina. I said she doesn't have the stamina, and I don't believe she does have the stamina." I think we get the gist. This was, of course, Donald Trump's thinly veiled reference to Hillary Clinton's collapse at the anniversary commemoration of the 11th September attacks. One of the many body blows by both candidates in the first TV Presidential debate.

Perhaps he was trying to exercise some self restraint? As he did not use the dramatic words of one police official: 'I watched her being thrown into the car, like a side of beef.' Pneumonia was the cause, and, for Hillary Clinton, the timing was terrible. However, in this, the first of three US TV presidential free-for-alls, both candidates were keen to be seen as THE people's President in top notch condition. Hillary; as one Philly based fashionista put it: 'was ready to rumble in a smart red pantsuit with a round-collared blazer a smidgen longer than standard length'

Putting aside the looks and the verbal right hooks, how much should we be allowed to know about any presidential or political high flyer's health? And if we know all there is to know about their impairments and imperfections, what's to stop all of our own frailties becoming public fodder?

You might think it's straightforward. If she/he's a potential leader of the free world, or a possible UK Prime minister, then it follows we have a right to know all the uncomfortable medical details. From a minor bunion to a major mental illness, and everything in between. Surely it is in the national and international interest? Or is it?

What if Kennedy's steriods for his Addison's disease had been splashed across the front pages of the time? Revealed as a ' life littered with illnesses'; by Time magazine in 2002, 'it was (apparently) a hidden ordeal of pills and injections.',9171,393754,00.html Somehow, he managed to drag himself out of the sickbed and avert a nuclear war, claim his supporters. The decision, in October, 1962, to send a US naval blockade to prevent further Russian missile sites being built in Cuba, was made on his watch. Would his Addison's have prompted a call for his resignation, and his 'stamina' been questioned?

Regan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2004 but rumours of his illness were rife in the 1980's. His fitness to fight an election was not even an issue in the 1984 presidential campaign. Prime Time TV's 'The West Wing' had the President, Josiah Bartlet, played by the much loved Martin Sheen, belatedly revealing his MS diagnosis. His spin doctors go into hyper drive. Who should they tell? Should they tell at all? And......well you can download the box set.

If Presidents and politicians medical records become a free-for-all-to see-essential, what about the rest of us? Should we all be compelled to tell an employer about our anxiety, ulcers and fact we are routinely exceeding the guidelines for alcohol consumption? As US journalist Meghan Carpenter brutally suggests; ''let those who have never contracted HPV ,(a sexually transmitted nasty); that's less than 20% of sexually active adults in the US; and who floss every day, cast the first stone.'

Like with so many of the issues around privacy, it feels like there should be a sliding scale. Presidents and Prime Ministers sit at the top, with perhaps a weaker argument that their health is not a matter of public concern. At the other end of the spectrum are people whose jobs are of no concern to the vast majority of people. But all of us are impacted by others' lives, and therefore their potential or actual illnesses, to a lesser or greater degree. So where do we all draw the line?

Privacy, in the surgery, means that we can be really honest with the doctor. So, if a dramatic diagnosis comes our or a member of our family's way, we can begin to deal with the trauma and the huge impact it may have; without having to face shock reactions and possible stigma in the workplace, amongst our friends, and yes, in the political powerhouse. That is why privacy, no matter how desirable it is for one side, or the other, to go public, is worth protecting.

Jenny Afia is a Partner at International Privacy and Reputation Consultancy, Schillings.