A few weeks before he makes history by becoming the first Druse director-general of an Israeli medical center, Dr.
Salman Zarka looked back with satisfaction at his years as commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Center for Medical Services.
“We have taken steps to make healthier soldiers,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week. Zarka, who works out of the Tel Hashomer army headquarters, will soon run Safed’s Ziv Medical Center, not far from the village of Peki’in where he was raised.
“It’s not as if we get young children whose habits haven’t yet been formed,” he said. “Soldiers prefer fried potato chips rather than baked potatoes, but as the new generation of children who have learned to prefer whole grains, less salt and sugar and more vegetables grow up, they will make it easier for the IDF to improve.”
Today’s soldiers may have developed bad habits – from smoking to eating junk food and spending much of their youth in front of the TV set or computer screen and constantly using their smartphones – but, gradually, they can change, he said.
Zarka graduated from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Rappaport Medical Faculty in Haifa and later studied medical administration, public health and epidemiology at various universities.
In the IDF, he was in charge of public health and served as medical commander in the North before he was “loaned” to the Health Ministry and worked as medical assistant to then-ministry director-general Prof. Ronni Gamzu. He eventually returned to the IDF, in Safed, as a government hospital director.
Despite military budget pressures, Zarka noted that, a few years ago, the IDF replaced soy oil with more-nutritious olive and canola oils in all its kitchens at a cost of NIS 25 million a year.
“We have already brought down the consumption of oils in the IDF by 10 percent, and margarine is long gone from the table.”
The IDF “has done a lot to eliminate unhealthful foods and purchases more nutritious products now. We have almost stopped buying processed meats, including hot dogs,” he said. “We are thinking of stopping agreements with some companies that supply us with processed food and to open a new public tender for better ones.
While burekas, containing dangerous trans fats, are still found in the IDF, the intention is to get rid of them. We can also train cooks better.
The situation is improving.”
Zarka also brought in a civilian nutrition expert, Sigal Faran, to work as the first IDF chief dietitian, advising on food purchases.
“Each command also has nutritional advisers in various commands on buying healthier food and how to cook it without killing the vitamins and minerals,” he said. “They will bring about a new era.”
Zarka also addressed recent complaints from soldiers serving at the major IDF centers of the Tel Aviv Kirya and Tel Hashomer about the lost privilege of seeing their own personal physicians from one of the four public health funds.
Unlike soldiers on IDF bases, where there are clinics on site, the two locations didn’t have significant medical facilities, and the health funds demanded more money for taking care of soldiers there. The arrangement was canceled, with the health funds sending relevant soldiers personal letters informing them that they no longer could come for service near their homes or offices.
“We didn’t cancel the deal with the health funds because we were angry with them,” Zarka said. “They gave excellent service. Economics is just one aspect. Our own doctors provide military medicine and civilian doctors in the health funds don’t always have the answers for health problems related to the military.”
The military medicine program at the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem will graduate doctors with special military capabilities in a few years, boosting medical services in the IDF, he continued.
In the past, soldiers needing psychiatric treatment had to go to civilian physicians, but some now are available inside the IDF.
“The change from the health funds to military clinics gave us a good opportunity to look at our medical service,” he said. “We have opened clinics in the two places, and tens of thousands of soldiers will be able to get treatment, using cards that will direct them where and when to show up.”
In addition to the use of the IDF intranet, a smartphone application for soldiers to make doctor appointments is in the works. When military medical specialists aren’t available, arrangements with Sheba and Wolfson Medical Centers will make it possible for soldiers to see civilian experts in the needed fields.
Over the last two years, Zarka has sent IDF family- medicine specialists to the periphery in the northern and southern commands so soldiers and officers in the regular and professional army can consult them where they are based, he said.
Professional soldiers will have a new privilege of selecting a “family physician or even a specialist in IDF uniform” who will see and treat them when needed, instead of having to go to a different doctor each time.
This benefit will not apply to soldiers in the regular army, however.
Regarding media criticism of the private chain of urgent-care clinics around the country, Bikur Rofeh, for crowding, especially on Saturday nights and Sundays when soldiers go back to work, Zarka said new branches have opened in the Carmel, Hadera, Karmiel and Kfar Saba to reduce pressure on other branches,in addition to existing clinics in the larger cities, but that, in another year, when the contract expires other providers of urgent-care services will be considered.
As for vaccinating all soldiers against influenza, which is expected to be more severe this year and causes unnecessary absenteeism, Zarka said combat soldiers get them first, followed by those with chronic illness.
Healthy, non-combat soldiers also can go to IDF clinics and ask for a free vaccination, but noted that not many request the shots. He was unable to say how many units of vaccine the IDF has purchased.
On other matters, Zarka indicated young officers, especially, are discouraged from smoking because it reduces their physical and mental abilities.
At some military facilities in the large cities, it is already forbidden to sell cigarettes or water pipes, he noted, adding that smoking increasingly is being banned in the open air, not to mention indoors.
As for his replacement, though one has not yet been announced, Zarka said he will come from the ranks of IDF physicians.
“We have excellent doctors among us who can do the job.”