Looking remarkably fit for a man who has walked from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem while on a hunger strike, Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman, accompanied by an eight member delegation of physicians from different parts of the country, met with President Shimon Peres at Beit Hanassi on Sunday, before continuing on to the mass demonstration in the vicinity of the Prime Minister’s office.
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“How much weight did you lose?” asked Peres as he greeted him enthusiastically.
“I don’t know yet,” replied Eidelman. “I haven’t weighed myself.”
“But you look great, really handsome,” responded Peres, adding to photographers as the two posed for a photo opportunity, “He’s got tons of energy.”
In more serious vein, Peres was concerned about Eidelman’s health, and when he asked about it, Eidelman assured him that he was fine, although he did have a spell in which he wasn’t feeling well and was unable to get up from his bed. But that passed, he said, and he was feeling perfectly all right.
“Can you hold out?” asked Peres.
The answer was unhesitatingly affirmative.
Referring not only to the medical crisis but to the general situation in the country, Peres said that he found the demonstrations to be very moving, yet civilized.
“This generation has a right to speak out and it is our obligation to listen and draw conclusions,” he said.
Peres then focused specifically on the public health problem and reminisced about the time when medical services were equally available to everyone in the country regardless of status or affluence.
He was aware, he said, that doctors work very hard for a pittance of a salary.
He was also convinced that the government was interested in conducting a dignified discourse with the IMA with a view to resolving the issue.
Eidelman said that it was a great honor to be at Beit Hanassi, but emphasized that the IMA was not seeking honor but a solution to a very serious problem.
“Public health is in crisis,” he said. “We need more doctors.”
One of the major issues in the crisis is longevity, he explained.
The longer people live the more geriatric diseases arise, and there are not enough doctors around to treat them. In this respect, he said, Israel is third in the world after Japan.
The ratio of doctors per thousand people in the population declines from year to year, he noted, even though there are still more medical graduates from year to year. Whereas the average number of graduates per annum used to be around 330, it will soon be 600, but the fact of the matter is that 900 are required, said Eidelman.
“There has to be a dramatic change,” he insisted.
A situation in which the sick wait too long for surgery to be performed or for attention in the emergency ward, cannot be allowed to continue. Nor should the number of rosters to which interns are subjected be allowed to continue. In communities on the periphery, interns are required to take on an average of 12 duty rosters a month, working almost around the clock, whereas in the center of the country, they have up to ten such rosters, which is also too great a burden, said Eidelman.
Because there is no real incentive for people to remain in the profession, senior doctors are either leaving the country or leaving the profession to go into high tech. In a recent survey, he said, 13 percent of Ben Gurion University medical graduates were considering leaving the country or the profession.
The situation is dire in every hospital and clinic throughout the country, he declared. “It’s urgent that something be done about it.”
He had decided to stage a hunger strike, he said, because public health is something that affects everyone.
“The longer people live, the more doctors will be needed,” he said.
Physicians accompanying Eidelman also contributed to the conversation.
There are 2,500 Israeli doctors in North America, who have been there for three years, said one. One way of resolving the crisis is to bring them back to Israel. It is essential that human resources be increased not decreased, he said.
Another pointed out that over the years doctors have taken on additional responsibilities until they could no longer cope with the burden. He reminded Peres that the President had attended an international convention of Jewish physicians in which many had expressed a willingness to come on aliya, but today he said, this is an almost impossible expectation because of the sacrifices they would have to make.
“It’s not just a problem of salaries but quality of life.” An intern noted that all doctors initially take up the profession for altruistic reasons, but in his own case he was doing 14 duty rosters a month and missing out on seeing his family. He couldn’t go on for much longer, he said.
A senior doctor from Soroka said that the situation had become dangerous.
The public has become frustrated by the lack of beds, the long wait for treatment and the unavailability of physicians and has resorted to violence, with the result that doctors needed security guards. This particular physician has a son who is an intern in another medical center, and who after seven years of study is earning NIS 20 per hour.
Yet another doctor complained that there is simply not enough time for
doctors to spend with patients. There are long queues in waiting rooms
and in peripheral areas, patients often have to travel for hours and
then sit in the waiting room for hours to spend three minutes with a
Peres said that he was impressed by the patriotic attitude of the physicians, and said that they have a very genuine case.
“We have to give doctors the opportunity to work under more conducive
conditions,” he said, adding that he knew from long years of experience
that this problem did not have to linger as long as it has and that it
could have been resolved much sooner. He said that he would talk to the
relevant people in the government and meanwhile urged the IMA to do all
that it could to put an end to its differences with the government for
the sake of public health. “I know it’s difficult, but now is the time
to make a vital decision,” he said.