Unless the number of medical students is doubled immediately, the country will face a "manpower catastrophe" within a few years, the Health Ministry said this week. If nothing is done, Israel will have its lowest rate of physicians per 1,000 people after more than a decade of having some of its highest rates, the ministry said. The shortage of doctors and nurses was already becoming apparent due to the upcoming retirement of many professionals and the drop in immigration from the former Soviet Union, said Gabi Bin-Nun, the Health Ministry's deputy director-general for economics, who headed a committee to investigate future medical manpower needs. "We have asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office and the Council for Higher Education's planning and budgeting committee to immediately approve funds for expanding the number of medical and nursing students," he told The Jerusalem Post Monday. "Nothing was done over the years because the ratio was high, but now it is clearly dropping. The population is growing and ageing, and the need for medical and nursing care is expanding. We will not have enough unless we invest now in more students in existing medical and nursing schools." It takes seven years to become a doctor and more years to specialize. It takes four years to train a nurse. According to the committee's report, the number of licensed physicians under the age of 65 was 25,138 last year, or 3.53 doctors per 1,000 residents. Since 1999, this rate has been dropping, and without intervention, it will reach 2.72 physicians per 1,000 in 2020. The annual number of medical graduates must immediately be expanded to 600, Bin-Nun said. A new medical school need not and should not be opened, he said, since the existing four university-affiliated medical schools could be expanded to accept more students. The ministry said a lack of spaces in Israeli medical schools forced students to study abroad, especially in Eastern Europe, where the level of medicine is significantly lower than here. The rate of nurses per 1,000 residents was 5.8 last year, which is in decline and among the lowest in the West, the report said. If nothing is done by 2020, this rate will drop to 4.82 per 1,000 - an 18 percent decline. Some 850 new nursing students should be trained annually, the report said.