A good head on Hadassah's shoulders

Nancy Falchuk, organization's 24th president, has a new set of priorities.

Falchuk 224 judy (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Falchuk 224 judy
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Most health ministers in the last three decades would have preferred a different portfolio, and knew very little about the health system or medical care. But the various national presidents of the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America (HWZOA) - all very sharp women - have years, even decades, of direct involvement not only in the development of Hadassah Medical Organization institutions but also in budgets, organization, fundraising and international organizations. HWZOA donates nearly $50 million a year to all its Israel projects. The 24th HWZOA national president, Nancy Falchuk - installed into her four-year position a month ago - has even more credentials. She is an experienced nurse, her husband Kenneth is a senior physician and professor at Harvard Medical School and involved in international medical services - and one of her three children, Bradley, is writer of the American TV series on plastic surgery Nip-Tuck. In her first Israeli interview since assuming office and during a 10-day trip to Israel, Falchuk displayed impressive familiarity with the goings on not only at Hadassah's medical centers, but also with medical school education, medical technology and a variety of other subjects. Born on New York's Long Island to Mildred and Murray Kozinn (now of Florida), she inbibed Zionism. Her mother, now 87, was active in Hadassah and even became a chapter president. As a young girl growing up in a secular family in the town of Woodmere, Falchuk overheard her mother's Hadassah friends discussing Israel, Jewish culture and women's issues. "I always saw my mother and her friends doing very practical work, making differences in people's lives," Falchuk said. "So that's what intrigued me. It wasn't that people were just either talking or raising money and that they were involved: They were educated and felt they could make a difference in a land far away." HER HOME on Long Island was not traditionally Jewish, but when she moved to Boston, "Hadassah offered study groups that helped promote my Jewish education." Now, as the president of the 300,000-member organization, she not only listens but takes action to inspire members to raise funds for Israel; among its prime issues as a Jewish women's organization are promoting stem cell research, fighting for women's rights (including free choice of abortion), encouraging members to vote in US elections (but without endorsing candidates) and battling against proposed academic boycotts of Israel, especially those bandied about in Europe. Falchuk graduated from New York's Woodmere Academy and went on to study nursing at Russell Sage College. When she married Dr. Falchuk (born in Brooklyn to a family who escaped pogroms in Europe but was raised in Venezuela), they moved to Boston. They now have five grandchildren. She rose in Hadassah's ranks, eventually becoming head of Hadassah International, which encompass people in 26 countries, especially Europe, but also in the Far East and South America. It was founded by a previous national president, Bernice Tannenbaum. "One of the smartest things we ever did was to look beyond the US and use medicine as a bridge to peace," said the young-looking 63-year-old nurse in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at the King David Hotel. "There is a generation now coming out of Hadassah International - of passionate and bright young people. They trot the globe but stay connected. It doesn't have the word 'Zionist' in the title, but they are connected to Israel and Zionism by attending panel discussions on global issues in health care, for example. They meet in cities such as Hong Kong and New York, where there was a queue all around the block for participating at a Hadassah fundraising strategy event at $250 per ticket. It gives young people at opportunity to reconnect with their heritage and culture outside established religious streams. "I think that in the world today when you travel outside the US, a lot of Jews live in an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic environment. Hadassah wants to present the best face of Israel through health care and education rather than what is shown on CNN. Humanity must see Israel as a democratic country with a lot of the problems the rest of the world has but doing its very best to benefit all." As for aliya, Falchuk said "Israel has become one of those attractive places in the world where you can move and go for a career and lifestyle, or just to visit as a vacation spot. Israel can be sold as a great place to be. Why not move to Israel and practice medicine at Hadassah?" When she finished her term at Hadassah International, donors established a scholarship fund to finance research by three Hadassah nurses in Jerusalem each year. Falchuk also founded the Hadassah National Center for Nurses Council, the first and only US national professional organization for Jewish nurses. "As a young professional, I used to think I was the only Jewish nurse in the country," she recalled. Hadassah recently began construction of a 14-floor, 500-bed hospitalization tower to replace wards opened on the Ein Kerem campus in 1961. The $210 million project - $75 million of which has been donated by Detroit Jewish philanthropist William Davidson - is scheduled to be dedicated in 2012 to mark HWZOA's centenary. ASKED ABOUT feelings of "neglect" voiced by some physicians at the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, Falchuk said these are not justified, even though so much energy and money is being invested in Ein Kerem. "Mount Scopus was our foundation, our history, where Hadassah began. We have renovated all the departments and established there a unique center for the treatment of pediatric chronic diseases. We have limited resources, but we will look into what more we can do." Some voices have advocated spending large sums on disease prevention and health promotion instead of improving the "hotel services" of the Ein Kerem hospital. Falchuk said she recognizes the importance of public health projects, and that Hadassah was launched 95 years ago by Henrietta Szold to provide milk to poor infants and fight infections among residents of Jerusalem. "But the buildings are growing old, and hospitals elsewhere in the country are upgrading. Hadassah created hospitals run at a high standard according to evidence-based medicine, and actually helped found Israel's healthcare system. Today, you can't possibly practice the optimal kind of medicine in the current facility, with its antiquated operating theaters and four patients to a room. We debated renovation of existing wards and decided we have to build a new tower." With Falchuk's prodding, HMZOA is establishing a marketing division to drive the 100th anniversary events and promote awareness of its projects. She echoes a recent statement by the Hadassah Medical Organization's highly respected director-general Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef - that the top level of medical care coupled with comfortable and gleaming "hotel services" in the hospital will attract foreigners to undergo surgery and other treatments at Hadassah. "It can become a major income producer," Falchuk said. The Arab world is a natural to come here for treatment of genetic diseases and others in which Israeli medicine has special expertise, she added. The additional income will not come at the expense of Israelis, but will actually fund improved care for local patients, says Falchuk. "I would like to have a plan for this. We got sidetracked by the [violence of the] intifada, when people wouldn't think of coming to Jerusalem for treatment. Today, foreigners come because Hadassah offers things that are not available elsewhere. But we could do more to bring them." Israel, said Falchuk, "has magnificent hospitals for a small country, but now they're competing to find niches. They're not pulling together. Patients are much more aware of their rights and are more educated consumers." In addition, she sees from the US that the bureaucracy involved in doctoring is discouraging men from practicing. Health maintenance organizations and hospitals stress profitmaking and restricting treatments, thus de-personalizing and harming the doctor-patient relationship. Falchuk welcomes the fact that half of all Israeli medical students are women, but is concerned that here - as in the US - many women doctors don't want to work full time, teach or conduct research because of their responsibilities at home. "This is happening all over the world. It is good that people have choices of other professions and that women can get into medicine and reach senior positions, but there is also a negative impact." But she feels that hospitals have not kept up in providing the support and infrastructure to make it easier for more women doctors to devote time to research. This is true also of modern male doctors who want to have a family life. Asked about the dearth at Hadassah institutions of medical informatics for the support of patient care, Falchuk said she and colleagues have raised the issue, which marks the intersection of information science, computer science and health care. Informatics deals with the resources, devices and methods required to optimize the acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of information in health and biomedicine and its use to reduce medical errors and ensure quality. "Now that I am president, the issue will be raised again, and I want nursing informatics as well." Veterans at the two hospitals have worried about the movement of promising doctors not only to higher-paying jobs abroad, but especially to more senior positions in other Israeli centers. Falchuk commented that "the good news is that Israel's healthcare system is one that now entices people to work in other places. But there is also bad news, as we lose good people; some may not want to remain in Jerusalem for other reasons. The way academic centers are set up is mind-boggling and has to be looked at more closely. "One of my goals is to find ways to promote advancement in hospitals and medical schools instead of creating fiefdoms of department heads who remain in their posts for years. More must be done to keep the best people; those with a hope of getting ahead. And we will fight for providing more research money to attract the best brains," said Falchuk, who first visited Israel in 1985. At the end of her term in four years, Falchuk would be pleased to boast that Hadassah's membership has grown and includes many more younger career women, shaking off its image as a pursuit of retired homemakers who have time to attend fundraising lunches. "The average age of our members has declined, and we have many more than we used to who have full-time jobs." Hadassah is increasingly setting up groups based on professions, such as doctors, nurses and others, which attract people for narrow reasons and then inspire their interest in its Zionist, Jewish and pro-Israel goals, she says. Falchuk would also like to promote more members' visits to Israel. To attract more, Israel will have to build more hotel rooms at a variety of standards and provide more airline seats. The new Hadassah national president herself, who will fly back and forth to Israel even more regularly than before, is in a good position to keep track.