Medical experts and ethicists are harshly criticizing news outlets and doctors who continue to spread false conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, warning that such irresponsible “diagnoses” are both unprofessional and dangerous.
Republican nominee Donald Trump and his campaign have been pushing the conspiracy theory that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is secretly suffering from severe health problems. Trump’s allies in the conservative media, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, have also promoted the Clinton health conspiracy theory.
But medical experts, some who represent hundreds of medical professionals, are warning that trying to diagnose Clinton without having examined her or researched her entire medical history is simply wrong.
“Diagnosing a person who is not your patient without ever examining that person or reviewing his or her entire medical record, signifies a huge ethical lapse on the part of a physician,” said Len Bruzzese, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalists. “Shopping for doctors willing to do this anyway, signifies a huge ethical lapse on the part of a journalist.”
“To attempt to diagnose an individual without that information does them a disservice and can harm the individual with an inaccurate label or diagnosis which can negatively impact them,” said Dr. Robert Wergin, chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Board of Directors. “It can lead to speculation regarding the individual that could be far from the truth."
Dr. Art Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, said, “unless you believe in psychic diagnosis it is completely irresponsible and unprofessional to do it.”
He later added, “The bottom line danger is you are likely to be wrong. Second, you are just playing along with the politics. That is what is driving this. They don’t care about these people, they are just calling doctors to push the partisanship. ... I think it's lousy journalism ethics. You shouldn’t be fostering the notion that somehow these are experts who can divine the health status of people they’ve never met, talked to, or have no sense of their medical history. It’s farcical and to indulge it is one more example of journalists not knowing how to cover this campaign.”
Lawrence McGinty, chair of the Medical Journalists’ Association, a British medical association, called such diagnoses “dangerous.”
“My advice to doctors would be simply ‘Don't.’ And as a TV news journalist for three decades, my advice to journalists would be, ‘Don't ask.’"
Karl Stark, a Philadelphia Inquirer health and science journalist and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, added, “Guessing may be a staple of astrology but it's bad for medicine and bad for journalism.”
Andrew Holtz, a former CNN medical correspondent and editor of The Holtz Report, agreed: “When reporters call up a doctor and ask for something, like diagnosis by video clip, that is beyond their expertise, they should refuse to play along … and tell the reporter or producer why they can’t do it.”
Dr. Paul K. Bronston, National Chairman of the Ethics and Professional Policy Committee of the American College of Medical Quality, is a veteran medical expert in legal matters. He said such an approach would be dangerous in court, let alone on television.
“I think it’s outrageous and it's irresponsible and it's unethical,” Bronston said of the unauthorized opinions. “They have no business doing that if they haven’t reviewed their medical records, haven’t listened to appropriate doctors who are taking care of her, and they have to have the requisite specialty to comment on that.”
He cited Dr. Drew Pinsky’s recent claims as an example of one of the worst offenders.
“I am very concerned about Dr. Drew making medical evaluations and a diagnosis regarding Hillary Clinton’s alleged medical problems in areas outside his medical expertise,” Bronston said. “I also believe that he would probably be disqualified to give medical testimony in certain areas of Hillary’s medical condition in a California court. What he is doing is unethical.”
Jonathan Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, also cited doctor-patient ethics.
“Ethically, unless you have entered into a therapeutic relationship with a patient, you are not supposed to diagnose their medical condition,” he said. “And if you do that you are not supposed to reveal it under the doctor-patient relationship. It doesn’t do the profession any favors when you do these things.”
Dr. Richard Allen Williams, president of the National Medical Association, which represents African-American doctors, noted Trump’s role in the spread of accusations about Clinton.
“In the case of the particular political campaigns, it seems that most of the commentary regarding one’s health status has flowed from the Trump side to the Clinton side,” Williams said. “We do not see that as action that would be warranted and it is unethical from the standpoint of someone making a medical comment without having examined the individual or having knowledge of that person.”