Dec 05, 2021

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The ongoing retirement of thousands of Israeli physicians who came on aliya from the former Soviet Union three or more decades ago has produced a severe shortage of doctors in Israel’s growing and ageing population. The shortage of doctors to become more acute in coming years; as it is, the ratio of doctors to the population here is among the lowest in the OECD countries. 


As a result, heavy pressure is put on newly graduated Israeli doctors who go on to be residents in hospitals as they learn a specialty. 


It usually takes from seven to 12 years, including theoretical studies, clinical studies that includes hands-on experience, an internship and a residency.


The shortage has put heavy and near-impossible pressure on residents who are required to earn specialties in many fields, especially surgery, to work 26-hour shifts six to eight times a month. They are exhausted. And since a growing number of young physicians here are women who have children to give birth to and raise, the burden on them is even greater. 


Medical studies are significantly subsidized by the government, with students paying less than $4,000 a year in tuition, compared to medical students in other Western countries to cover all the costs and go into debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars at the best medical schools. 


As a result of state subsidies, the government severely limits the expansion of slots, even though many older doctors are retiring and many younger ones are moving to hi-tech companies or leaving the country for residencies or permanent jobs abroad. One medical resident who moved to Italy says he does only 12-hour shifts three times a month, a much more relaxed schedule than that forced upon his Israeli counterparts. 


After years of demanding more medical residency slots to share the burden and threatening to take action, nearly 3,000 of them in the MIRSHAM organization of medical residents have signed resignation letters and deposited them with their hospital managements. 


The Health Ministry said it would shorten shifts for some residents in the country’s periphery after changing its mind about doing this in hospitals around the country – out of concern that residents would choose posts in richer and more advanced medical centers in the center of the country. The resignations will leave hospitals around the country extremely shorthanded – even paralyzed – unless some compromise can be reached. 


Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Education Minister Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton approved on Monday 60 more openings for medical students nationwide effective immediately – 50% of them at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beersheba. The rest were allocated to medical schools in Haifa and Safed. But it will take seven to 12 years before the hospitals and community clinics will feel the change.


The ministers’ decision will bring the freshman class of the Joyce and Irving Goldman Medical School to 150 students on the first day of classes this coming Sunday.


The decision comes amid rising concern about a shortage of doctors in the next few years as a generation retires and not enough doctors remain in practice. The situation is particularly acute in the South, which is why BGU has been pressing for more openings for years. In 2015, the class was increased from 90 to 120.


BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz commented: “I applaud the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education’s decision to add spots to the current medical school class. It is an important and significant addition of students, but, over and above that, it is a significant contribution to strengthening the health system in general and particularly in the South. The shortage of doctors is great, and I am hopeful that this is the precursor for future expansions.”


Prof. Angel Porgador, dean of BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, added: “Increasing the number of medical students is a national priority and very important for Israel’s health system. The increase will address the shortage of doctors and open a window of opportunity for more students to be accepted to medical school, while maintaining the quality of teaching. Our medical school is one of the best and leading medical schools in the country, and many of our graduates serve in senior positions in medical institutions and the health system.”


“These new students will become the future generation, who we hope will remain in medical centers, community clinics and rehabilitation centers affiliated with the faculty and other places,” said Prof. Ilan Shelef, deputy dean of the faculty. “This is the generation that will improve the health of the citizens of Israel as a whole and of the Negev in particular. We will instill our values – excellence, humanity, and cutting-edge advanced skills – in accordance with the guiding spirit of our school.”

BGU is the fastest growing research university in Israel. With 20,000 students, 6,000 staff and faculty members, and three campuses in Beersheba, Sde Boker and Eilat, BGU is an agent of change, fulfilling the vision of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s legendary first prime minister, who envisaged the future of Israel emerging from the Negev.