Nursing students at a Hadera hospital.
Nursing students at a Hadera hospital. Photo by Alon Ron
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The ORT Israel school network is launching a project that would let high schoolers study nursing from age 15, sparking strike threats from professionals who say the program would produce immature nurses at age 18.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar have approved the pilot project at ORT Israel, which focuses on scientific and technical education. The program would see 200 students in Ashkelon, Arad and Abu Basma study nursing in two different tracks: a longer course from age 15 and an accelerated course for students with matriculation certificates.

The nurses union has even threatened to strike. "There is no precedent in any country on the planet that allows nursing to be taught in a technical school. Nurses aren't engineers," says union chairwoman Ilana Cohen. "With all due respect, a high schooler can't handle the responsibility needed for this line of work. In all my years as a nurse I've never witnessed such political intervention. We're determined to fight and not let this happen."

Both tracks would enable students to take the Health Ministry's nursing authorization exams before working in state hospitals and clinics.

Israel suffers from a severe nursing shortage; it has 476 nurses for every 100,000 people, trailing most Western countries.

"The idea was raised in the Bedouin communities in the Negev, which suffer from a severe shortage of nurses, and it's our responsibility to tackle that shortage," says ORT Israel's director general, Zvi Peleg. "We'll see to it that the courses include students with higher marks than those who usually enroll in nursing schools."

In the past few days the project has sparked dissent in the ministry because Litzman approved the pilot program before it was cleared by ministry experts.

Senior nursing officials have warned Litzman that the project could produce immature and unprofessional nurses in the health system. Nursing officials have met with Litzman and vowed not to allow "aggressive decisions by various interest groups who harbor economic interests that have nothing to do with public health. They said such decisions would "harm the essence, quality and future of our vocation."

Currently, nursing students study for six semesters at 20 academic institutions, whether as part of universities, colleges or hospitals. Accelerated shortened nursing studies were halted five years ago as part of a ministry drive to "academize" nursing studies.

Still, over the past two years, the ministry has encouraged plans allowing nurses to be authorized after as little as two years of studies. A nursing administration annual report has stated that the annual number of authorized nurses is due to increase from 880 in 2011 to 1,858 in 2014.

Nurses fear that the plan might damage nursing's academic image that officials have been promoting in recent years. "The nursing shortage wasn't caused by a lack of learning institutions, but rather because of the work burden in hospital wards and low pay," says Dina Silner, chairwoman of the nursing administrators union at Israeli hospitals.

The union has told Litzman that it won't allow ORT graduates to be trained in hospitals. The Israeli Society for Nursing Research has collected more than 2,000 signatures against the project on its Facebook page.

"Research proves that nurses with an academic background are better equipped to deal with the more complex and difficult cases," said Dr. Merav Ben Natan, the society's chairwomen and director of the nursing school at Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center. "The project might seriously impair the quality of nursing offered in hospitals."

Ichilov Hospital's director, Prof. Gabriel Barabash, supports the project. "Litzman informed me that the pilot was approved, and I believe that ORT in general and Zvi Peleg in particular can make the project a success," he said.

"We often don't use operating rooms because of a shortage of nurses .... We have to do everything possible to ensure that the system can recruit high-quality nurses. So far, the nurses union hasn't been that successful in that aspect. I hope they understand the importance of this move and support it."

And according to the Health Ministry, "Nursing studies should be open to whoever complies with the ministry's strict standards. The severe and growing shortage of nurses requires solutions, and the pilot's results will be evaluated. There is no fear that the quality of the authorized nurses will decrease, and the ministry and its officials will be very strict about that."