Although Israel has one of the highest rates of doctors per capita in the world, the retirement of large numbers of physicians in less than a decade will lower the rate to a "dangerous level" and even below the European average, Maccabi Health Services director-general Prof. Yehoshua Shemer said on Monday. Addressing the Third International Conference on Health Policy of the National Institute on Health Policy and Health Services Research, Shemer said that not only were budget restraints restricting the number of Israeli medical students, the retirement of doctors now in their late 50s and early 60s would create a serious shortage of physicians in the not-so-distant future. In addition, said Shemer, a Tel Aviv University medical school expert on health systems and policy and a former director-general of the Health Ministry, technological developments in medicine such as gene mapping and organ transplants would increase the need for doctors. Although access to medical information via the Internet has turned patients almost into "doctors," they are overwhelmed with information that requires mediation by a skilled and informed physician, said Shemer at the three-day conference in Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma, which is being attended by 600 leading health policy experts from 70 countries. Today, said Shemer, there were 3.5 doctors per 1,000 residents, while in less than a decade, we are liable to decline to fewer than 2.5 per 1,000. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who is familiar with health problems due to his founding and continued involvement in the voluntary organization Yad Sarah, surprised the audience when he said that while there were "excellent doctors in this country, there is something wrong in the diagnosis and also the treatment of the leaders of health policy, especially those who are sitting on the central arteries of the budget and think they are above everything." As senior Health Ministry officials were sitting at the dais and in the audience, Lupolianski added that he was told "the main issue on the agenda of the conference is whether the era of health reform is over. "As someone who is close to the provision of health services, I ask: Have all the hopes of past reforms been achieved? When the National Health Insurance Law came into effect, we had many expectations. Can those responsible for the law and its implementation honestly state that this is what we had hoped for? Are these the changes we wanted? What in the system can we be proud of? What has been changed? What can we be proud of? I give expression to the pain of many citizens. We all agree that reforms haven't been fully successful and didn't bring relief to the terrible weaknesses of the system." A Health Page feature on the conference will appear on Sunday, December 24.