Guest post by John Hughes
The current White House Physician, Dr Kevin O’Connor, served as a White House physician under former President George W Bush’s administration beginning in 2006. After former President Barack Obama took office, then Vice President Joe Biden asked him to become his personal physician and remain on the White House medical staff. Even though Dr O’Connor left the White House when former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he continued to be Joe Biden’s personal physician. Then, in January 2021, he became ‘The’ White House Physician, this time for now President Joe Biden.1
Dr O’Connor retired from military service in 2017. His career spanned 22 years and included combat deployments with conventional and special operations units. His selection in these units and service in the White House indicates excellence and dedication. Additionally, on the surface he served both Republican and Democrat White Houses so he appears apolitical at first glance. However, it is very unusual for a physician to remain dedicated to public service for a single politician (Joe Biden) for so long (13+ years).
The White House Physician job is like a military unit physician in that he/she is the personal physician for an executive but also beholden to the government organization to make the right judgement calls for the mission. A unit physician must do the right thing for the unit, office, and country and sometimes that puts the sacred personal doctor-patient relationship at odds with the greater good.
During my career I experienced firsthand several poignant examples of this dilemma. Before I became a physician, I served as an infantry platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. During my first night jump in the division, our battalion commander broke his leg and was unable to conduct parachute jumps during the remainder of his tenure as commander. He had a fantastic leadership style but the unit had concerns because if we went to war, our commander would not be able to deploy with us. He should have been reassigned for medical reasons to a nondeployable billet where he could still serve but not endanger unit success. The assigned unit physician should have forced the issue. Years later, as a deployed brigade surgeon (physician) in Iraq, I befriended a Civil Affairs captain that was both personable and effective at his job working with local Iraqi government officials. One day he experienced not one but two IED strikes and was knocked unconscious twice. When I investigated further, I discovered he had suffered other recent head trauma that had been unreported. With his effectiveness and health impaired, I recommended that he be sent home to recover. This was very unpopular with his supervisors and I endured grief from them afterwards, but it was the right thing to do for the unit and the individual.
It is no secret that President Biden may have dementia. Confusion, verbal lapses, inability to give speeches, and many other concerning events have led to calls for an impartial neurological evaluation. It is also no secret that President Biden’s health is a contentious political issue. In 2020, former President Barack Obama broke presidential traditions of non-involvement by scolding Representative (Dr) Ronny Jackson for publicly asking for cognitive testing of then candidate Joe Biden. Dr Ronny Jackson used to be the White House Physician for both former Presidents Obama and Trump.2 Obama’s comments were doubly unprofessional because they underscored the dilemma of the unit/White House physician and how politics and personal friendship could be overriding the White House physician’s other more important role to ensure the President is healthy to do the job.
On 8 August 2022, Newsmax quoted Biden as saying “”We’ve never done this before, but because of a number of things we got done on a bipartisan basis — like a billion, 200 million-dollar infrastructure project — like what we’re doing today, we passed yesterday, helping take care of everything from healthcare to God knows what else,” in his first public appearance after his rebound case of COVID-19. Again, there was no comment on this latest cognitive lapse from the White House or the White House physician.3 2 days before, Dr O’Connor told the media ‘”The President continues to feel very well,” Dr. Kevin O’Connor, the White House physician, wrote a week after Biden, 79, tested positive in a “rebound” case of Covid. “This morning, his SARS-CoV-2 antigen testing was negative.”’4
Interestingly, upon assuming office, President Biden dismissed Dr Sean Conley, who had served as former President Trump’s personal physician even though former Presidents Obama and Trump had initially kept on the personal physician from their predecessor. Dr Conley had been accused of controversy by the media for offering “rosey descriptions of Trump’s condition” when he was diagnosed with covid in 2020.5 Dr O’Connor appears to have done the same thing with Biden but was given a hypocritical pass by the media because he served a Democrat president. Trump was able to speak coherently in public after contracting covid; Biden was not.
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Dr O’Connor should never have assumed the role of White House Physician. Even if no trickery is occurring and Biden is not demented, appearance of favoritism between longtime friends alone is damaging to the office of White House Physician. No doctor is indispensable. The White House physician is not the expert who will actually treat life threatening emergencies and perform surgery. They are more of an advisor and caretaker for mild ailments. After 22 years of service and deployments with special operations forces where honesty concerning individual health for mission accomplishment is vital, Dr O’Connor should know well the optics of a long-standing personal friendship and a physician being placed in a position to defend the President’s health publicly. He should have no personal attachments to a patient that can be removed from office by invoking the 25th Amendment. Being personal physician to Biden for over 13 years clouds his ability to be objective and have the moral conviction to assist in declaring a President medically unfit for office if the situation arises.
The US is in an unusually dangerous position. Inflation has put the economy back into recession. China is actively practicing blockading Taiwan as a prelude to war. Another nuclear superpower, Russia, is dangerously close to conflict with NATO and World War III. Now more than ever, the President must be in full control of his/her mental faculties. Adversaries of the US should have no doubt about the health of the US President. Even if President Biden doesn’t have dementia or some other long term degenerative cognitive condition, the current White House Physician should resign immediately and be replaced with a neutral physician. He never should have accepted the job and brought any question of favoritism or politicization to what should be a disinterested, apolitical position.
John Hughes, MD
USMA Class of 1996 (#1 graduate)
3rd Generation West Pointer
4 combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
1Georgiou, Aristos. “Who is Dr Kevin O’Connor? Joe Biden Appoints US Army Veteran as White House Doctor.” Newsweek.com 25 January 2021.
2Lahut, Jake. “Obama scolded former White House physician Ronny Jackson for ‘cheap shot’ tweet about Biden’s cognitive health: report.” Business Insider India. 13 July 2022.
3Mack, Eric. “Biden Says Inflation Bill Covers ‘Healthcare, God Knows What Else.’” Newsmax.com 8 Aug 2022.
5Liptak, Kevin. “Biden replaces controversial White House physician.” Cnn.com 25 January 2021.