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The Council for Higher Education decided on Tuesday night to allow the establishment of a fifth public medical faculty - in the Galilee - to address a shortage of physicians expected in less than a decade.
The move aroused the ire of the existing medical schools.
The council accepted in full the recommendations of 11 members of the 12-strong Halevy Committee, which issued its report a few months ago. The panel was headed by Prof. Jonathan Halevy, director-general of Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center, who has long favored the opening of an additional medical faculty.
The only member who opposed the proposal was Gabi Bin-Nun, the Health Ministry's deputy director-general for economics.
Building a medical school in the Galilee has been a pet project of President Shimon Peres, until recently minister for the development of the Galilee and the Negev. In recent years he has advocated such a step in numerous speeches.
The council said that a total of 600 new doctors could be produced per year, with the opening of a faculty in the Galilee, a moderate expansion of existing medical schools and the continuation of training programs for doctors from abroad.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who is also the council's chairwoman, and other council members will soon set down the procedures for choosing a university that will establish the new medical school. The only universities that are "unattached" - meaning that they have no affiliated medical faculty - are the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and the University of Haifa.
Tamir said after the announcement that the decision "was of national importance both because a new school would be set up in the Galilee and because it restores the planning of higher education to the council."
Prof. Shaul Sofer, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, under whose aegis the BGU's medical school operates, told The Jerusalem Post that the decision was "a terrible mistake."
Speaking by phone from abroad, he said he was "very surprised. There is none of the necessary infrastructure for teaching medical students in the Galilee."
Sofer, a pediatrician, conceded that every time another medical faculty has been opened, the existing ones voiced strong opposition.
"It was so when Tel Aviv University opened its school; the Hebrew University opposed it. When we opened in Beersheba, Tel Aviv and the HU opposed it. And when the Technion in Haifa opened, all protested.
"I want to be fair: Sometimes we don't see things right at a certain moment. But I can be more objective than those in Tel Aviv and Haifa, as they can be hurt by a new medical school, since hospitals they are affiliated with would switch affiliation to the Galilee school. We are alone in the Negev and have no vested interest," he said.
Sofer said that while there clearly would be a shortage of highly trained physicians in a decade - and there are already too few anesthesiologists, pathologists, internal medicine experts and other specialists - it would become acute as the current middle-aged group retire. The shrinking of the former Soviet Union as a source of aliya has had a major impact.
But he said that the existing faculties could expand their student bodies easily and cheaply by adding a little infrastructure. "Where will a new medical school in the Galilee find hospitals with enough high-level clinical departments able to teach medical students? Even today, there aren't enough clinical departments where we can send students. Hospitals such as Meir in Kfar Sava, Ziv in Safed, Western Galilee in Nahariya and Poriya in Tiberias are not utilized properly for teaching," he said.
In the Netherlands, for example, there are seven medical schools for a population of 17 million; four were enough for Israel, which has seven million people, Sofer said.
Prof. Peretz Lavie, a former dean of the Technion's Rappaport Medical Faculty, told the Post that a faculty in the Galilee will cost a fortune and that the existing schools could do it at one-tenth the price.
"I understand that having a medical school is prestigious and attracts donors, but there is not enough of a clinical infrastructure there to teach students. And you need high-level researchers to give a scientific base to a medical school. Maintenance also costs a lot of money," Lavie said.
Halevy told the Post he welcomed the decision, and made it clear that he would not serve in any capacity in such a new faculty, because he had been involved in recommendations to build it.
"I don't understand why the deans oppose the idea. There is an optimal class size, and they have reached it. We urgently need to produce more doctors, which takes seven years at minimum and many more years for specialists."
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