A Second Opinion

Assessments made by Sharon's personal physicians with regard to his lifespan and his ability to function in the future are neither reliable nor convincing.

A once-popular observation among medical community members said that when Menachem Begin's personal physician increased the dosage of steroids administered to the former prime minister, he would be overcome with bravado and decide on the establishment of a new settlement. Whether or not the observation was based on facts or merely a joke, it indicates the relationship between the medical condition of the captain of the state and his decisions, and also the ineligibility of his personal physician to testify in this regard.

The manner in which the public was informed of Ariel Sharon's condition again illustrates the problem inherent in the Begin story: The prime minister's personal physicians appeared to have disclosed all relevant details regarding the state of his health; in fact, however, they left the public in the dark - and even more significantly, they upheld the reporting tradition of leaving the initiative in this regard in the prime minister's hands.

Sharon did not set a precedent by instructing his personal physicians to pass on the results of his blood test to Yedioth Ahronoth; nor did he institutionalize a new and positive custom by allowing the daily newspaper and Hadassah doctors to describe his condition upon arriving at the hospital.

The doctors, in this instance, became pawns in the hands of the prime minister's publicists, who concluded that he would benefit by disclosing the state of his health at that point in time. Moreover, the medical information was not passed on to the newspaper by a professional, independent source, but by the prime minister's personal physicians.

Without a doubt, had Sharon's medical condition not been benign, he would not have volunteered to share it with the public at large. Sharon's public relations people decided that the prime minister's blood painted such a pretty picture that it would be best to publish it in the newspapers. And in their exuberance, the publicists (by means of the personal physicians) weighed down the test results with superfluous - not to say, embarrassing - particulars. The public has the right to know if the prime minister has the capacity to fulfill his duties; there is no need to inform it of his iron or hemoglobin levels. There is a need to distinguish between the medical condition of the country's leader and the ins-and-outs of his body's functioning.

Assessments made by his personal physicians with regard to his lifespan and his ability to function in the future are neither reliable nor convincing. Elderly individuals with abnormal blood values can live to a ripe old age, while others, who produce shining lab results, could fall victim to a sudden turnaround in their health. The doctors' role is to describe an existing state, and to do so in a manner that inspires trust.

And personal physicians are incapable of carrying such a load. The Hadassah doctors, in this instance, played a positive role in the manner in which they presented the findings of their tests; but they were called in to treat the prime minister as the result of a severe crisis, and therefore, are not a substitute for systematic, routine and credible reporting on the state of his health.

In an article published in Haaretz some five years ago, the chairman of the Israel Medical Association's ethics committee, Prof. Avinoam Reches, criticized the fact that Israel had yet to see the emergence of a culture of proper reporting on the state of health of its leaders. The openness that Sharon is showing is not a real step in the right direction, because it leaves the decision on publishing and on what to publish in the hands of the prime minister and his publicists.

The appropriate substitute is legislation or a regulation that will require every prime minister, before taking office, to undergo a complete physical at the hands of a proficient and reputable medical team with no ties to the patient. The team then would publish its professional opinion in layman's terms, with the bottom line being a statement regarding the prime minister's capacity to manage the state's affairs. The team would examine the prime minister, every prime minister, twice a year, and update the public on his condition. And in such a manner, the prime minister's health would be rescued from the manipulations of publicists.