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Israeli medical schools are proposing to cut the course of study by six months to help alleviate the shortage of doctors.

As part of the plan, they propose merging five exams into one comprehensive test that conforms to American standards. But students claim this would damage their right to review and appeal the results.

The deans of Israel's five medical schools want to shorten studies by six months as of the next academic year. Under their plan, the approximately 700 students in each graduating class would end their sixth-year clinical studies at the beginning of May instead of in July. This would result in their getting 10 fewer hours of clinical experience in hospitals.

The second stage of the plan envisions a shortened final exam period, allowing students to begin their internship year in October, even before they receive their medical license. Today, students begin their internship only in March, meaning the new plan will effectively shorten medical studies by six months.

The chairman of the deans' forum, Prof. Eran Leitersdorf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the plan "would add hundreds of working doctors to the health system every year."

In recent years, various committees have warned of a worsening doctor shortage. At the end of 2010, Israel had an average of 3.38 doctors up to the age of 65 for every 1,000 people. But the State Comptroller's Report warned that by 2020, the average would fall by 19 percent, to 2.76 doctors per 1,000 people.

Students have voiced opposition to the cut in hospital practice hours, but Leitersdorf insisted that "even under the shortened plan, Israeli students will still enjoy 100 hours of clinical practice in hospitals, as opposed to 70 to 80 hours in the United States, and far more than the norm in other Western countries."

The plan envisions having students begin their exam period on May 2 and finishing the three sixth-year exams - internal medicine, pediatrics and surgery - by the beginning of September, thus allowing them to begin their internship in October.

In the second phase of the plan, the deans seek to merge all five of the exams given in the fifth and sixth years into one comprehensive exam that conforms to the standard of the U.S. National Board of Medical Examiners. That would shorten medical studies by an additional month. But this would require amending the 2007 Student Rights Law, both because the American standard requires the exam to be taken in English, and because it does not permit students to appeal the results or view the corrected exam to see their mistakes, as required by the 2007 law.

The American standard exam has been adopted by several other Western countries, including Italy and Belgium, and legal advisors at the Hebrew University and Haifa's Technion have already drafted an amendment to the Students Rights Law that they plan to submit to the Knesset.

But one student who opposes the move charged that "merging the exams is just a laundered way of lowering the level of the final exams. The move is indeed contrary to the Students Rights Law, but obviously someone has decided that the end justifies the means. Medical students will once again be excluded from the law, thus perpetuating their status as second-class students."

While Leitersdorf acknowledged that some students oppose the move, "the medical student unions wrote the deans a letter supporting the move," he said. "Moreover, we're talking about one exam that would replace the five existing exams and advance the start of the internship, when students are paid for their work in the hospitals. And the fact that the exam is in English will be good preparation for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, which most students take after completing their studies."

As for students who study abroad and must then pass an Israeli licensing exam (which Israeli students are exempt from ), the Health Ministry has proposed expanding the list of countries exempt from the exam, which today includes the United States, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The ministry is also considering adopting the American standard exam for students who studied abroad, but faces a legal barrier in doing so: The American exam is in English, while the licensing exams must be in Hebrew, Arabic or Russian.