BIU Medicine Faculty to open new six-year MD degree program

Prof. Chaim Putterman, acting dean of the Azrieli Faculty, said that “the goal is to train as many doctors as possible here in Israel" amid a medical staff shortage.

 Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed. (photo credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)
Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed.
(photo credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)

For the first time in five decades, the Israel Council for Higher Education – the country’s official authority for higher education – has approved a six-year medical degree program at Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed. The new curriculum will include the use of advanced learning technologies, familiarization with the diverse community in the Galilee already at an early stage of studies and independent learning.

There are currently three ways to study medicine in Israel.

The first option is a full seven-year program. These are offered at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Beersheba.

The second option is a four-year program, available for those who already hold a bachelor’s degree. These programs are offered at TAU, Bar-Ilan University (BIU) and Ariel University.

While Israel currently has three international schools of medicine – at TAU, the Technion and BGU – these programs will be permanently closed for enrollment beginning in the fall of 2023, after a controversial decision last year, based on the lack of space for Israeli medical students to do clinical work in the hospitals due to too few teaching professors in the wards. The lack of space in Israeli medical schools has forced hundreds of Israelis each year to study abroad, often at lower-quality faculties.

 Graduates at Bar-Ilan University (credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY) Graduates at Bar-Ilan University (credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)

Established 12 years ago, the Azrieli school is a growing faculty that teaches medicine in four tracks and three years intended, respectively, for those with a bachelor’s degree, or for students who have begun studying medicine in institutions abroad.

The teaching staff includes some of the leading researchers and doctors in Israel, as well as those who have returned to Israel from the leading universities and medical centers in the world like Yale University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the US National Institutes of Health.

The six-year course

Prof. Chaim Putterman, acting dean of the Azrieli faculty, said that “the goal is to train as many doctors as possible here in Israel. The approval of another six-year program is a dramatic move. The strength of the study program is the use of advanced learning methods such as virtual reality (VR) and point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS), which refers to portable ultrasound systems that allow the assessment of patients without them needing to be physically present in a radiology department. Our future physicians will experience the latest technologies in the medical field through promotion of personal medical ventures. The policy of the faculty is to give individual attention to each student so that he or she will grow to be an excellent doctor.”

A six-year course of study will put BIU at the forefront of efforts to train the next generation of Israeli doctors and reduce the health gap between the periphery and the center, Putterman added. “The faculty, with the assistance of the government ministries, will work together with the goal of keeping a significant number of its graduates in the Galilee. Alongside our proven experience in recent years, we have conducted groundbreaking research with results on an international scale, as shown in numerous leading journals and in the presentation and hosting of international conferences.”

THE NEW program was developed by a team headed by Prof. Karl Skorecki, the former dean of the faculty, and Prof. Peter Gilbey, a physician specializing in otolaryngology and with a master’s degree in medical education who is the academic coordinator of the program.

The course of studies will consist of two phases. In the first phase of three years, students will earn a bachelor’s degree in medical sciences, and in three more years they will complete their MD degree. The last time a six-year study program was approved was in 1974 among the medical centers affiliated to the faculty: Ziv in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias, and the French, English and Italian hospitals in Nazareth.

One of the leading advantages of the faculty and its study programs is the immediate connection to a diverse community of patients and exposure to a wide variety of health challenges. Alongside the traditional training in the medical centers affiliated to the faculty, the leaders of the program want to allow students to also choose training in the community. As part of the global trend that began with the COVID-19 pandemic, the health system today increasingly requires community care, remote care and home hospitalizations. The faculty in Safed will provide future doctors with clinical skills alongside technological tools to face the challenge, Skorecki said.

A new building is being constructed for the BIU Faculty of Medicine in the heart of Safed; it will include, among other things, 5,600 square meters of advanced learning spaces, an auditorium, an innovative library and leisure spaces like a gym and cafeterias. This was made possible by large contributions from the Azrieli Foundation, the Rothschild Foundation and support from the Israeli government.

According to the Health Inequality Report published by the Health Ministry, in the northern and southern districts of the country, there were only 2.1 doctors per 1,000 residents in 2017, while in the Tel Aviv District, the number was 2.5 times higher and stood at 3.5 doctors per 1,000 people. There is an urgent need to generally increase the number of doctors in Israel, especially in the Negev and Galilee.

Medical training does have universal components, but there are also specific contexts that concern unique populations with special needs. So, says the Azrieli faculty, medical training provided in one country, or even in a certain place within a country, is not optimal for other places. In addition, the quality of medical training is not the same everywhere.

Another potential advantage of having a six-year course of study in Safed is to increase the proportion of doctors who stay to specialize and establish their lives in the Galilee. Arriving there at a relatively young age and, in many cases, before starting a family, will increase the chances that doctors will set down roots in the Galilee and choose to specialize and work in the hospitals and health funds in the North, said the faculty. In recent years, there has in fact been an increase in the number of graduates of the faculty who remain to specialize and work in the Galilee, and the hope is that a critical mass will be created with a positive effect on the graduates.