A hospital in Israel.
A hospital in Israel. Photo by Moti Milrod
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The nurses’ union has blacklisted an experimental program to train registered nurses at the ORT network of vocational high schools by persuading the hospitals not to cooperate with it.

The program, slated to begin this fall, was approved by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman earlier this year in a bid to alleviate the shortage of nurses. But the union claims the program won’t provide proper professional training.

Nursing isn’t engineering or some other technical profession,” said union chairwoman Ilana Cohen. “It’s a profession with great responsibility. It’s not like it was in the past, when a nurse just distributed food to the patients. Today, nurses are the backbone of the health system. They maintain the hospitals.”

Two months ago, Cohen had threatened demonstrations and even a strike against the program, but she said the union has now decided such steps would merely “provide a platform for the idea of training nurses in high school, which has no precedent anywhere in the world.”

Instead, the union has persuaded both government hospitals and those owned by the Clalit health maintenance organization not to cooperate with the program. The hospitals’ cooperation is necessary because any nursing program must include clinical experience.

Under the pilot program, two ORT schools in the south, in Ashkelon and Abu Basma, were to have started training 70 students this fall. The students would be high-school graduates who agreed to stay on at the school for an extra two years to earn certification as a registered nurse. ORT said the program could eventually be expanded to train 400 nurses a year.

The network is also seeking to start an expanded, six-year program that students would begin in ninth grade. This program would give the students credit toward an academic degree, which is necessary to obtain certification in various nursing specialties. ORT says it could eventually train 300 nurses a year in that program.

ORT’s executive director, Zvi Peleg, said the network will consider suing the nurses’ union and Cohen if they continue barring hospitals from cooperating with the program, on the grounds that this violates the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation. Peleg said Cohen has thus far refused to meet with him to discuss the issue. “There are students who are waiting [to enter the program]; what will I say to them?” he asked.

Meanwhile, he is trying to arrange training slots for his students at the Assouta network of private hospitals.

Cohen, via the union’s lawyer, Neomi Landau, said the union’s battle is not against ORT specifically, “but against any decision to create an alternative to the established tracks for training nurses that exist today.”

Currently, programs in nursing are offered at 19 nursing schools run by various colleges and universities. Cohen said that in a collective agreement signed with the Health Ministry in April, the ministry agreed to expand these programs to train another 400 to 500 nurses a year.

“There was no mention of ORT,” she fumed. “We have nursing schools on a college level, with wonderful teachers, and there are vacancies for students. So why do they want this program?”

“ORT has 100,000 students that receive training in various professions,” Peleg retorted. “We train thousands of technicians and engineers, and we’ve never before run into a situation in which a trade union challenged our training program and threatened to torpedo it. In the end, if the nurses’ union defeats us, there won’t be enough nurses in this country and the shortage will continue.”

ORT accuses the union of wanting to maintain the shortage of nurses to bolster its demands for higher pay, a charge Cohen dismisses as “nonsensical.” The union accuses ORT of wanting the new program because it will earn the network additional state funding, since the government subsidizes nurses’ training. Peleg counters that the network plans to invest NIS 70 million to NIS 80 million a year of its own money in student scholarships.

But the dispute isn’t only between ORT and the union; the Health Ministry is also divided over the plan. Its Nursing Administration, which supervises nurses, refused to approve the program, but Litzman nevertheless sent a letter to ORT on February 26 saying that he and the ministry’s director general had authorized the pilot program.

This authorization would seem to contradict regulations enacted in 1988, which state that nurses can only be trained in an institution recognized by the ministry’s head nurse, since the current head nurse, Dr. Shoshana Riba, opposes the program. But Litzman said he was determined to go ahead with it, due to the severe shortage of nurses.

The dispute is also roiling the medical world. For instance, Prof. Gabi Barabash, director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, is now fighting with the head of his own hospital’s nursing school, Dr. Haya Balik, because he supports the program and she opposes it. Barabash also slammed Cohen’s behavior this week.