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Sheba Medical Center recently inked an agreement to train foreign medical students that has sparked opposition from Israel's university heads and medical school deans. The universities have enlisted MK Rachel Adatto (Kadima ), who is a physician, to overturn the plan.

Sheba signed agreements with St. George's University of London and the University of Nicosia in Cyprus to start training dozens of medical students during the coming academic year for a fee of 25,000 euros per student, providing a source of income for the hospital in Tel Hashomer.

Sheba has also agreed to accept students who have completed two years of academic study in Cyprus for an additional two years of practical study at the Israeli hospital.

Graduates of the new program are to receive an M.B.B.S. degree, Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, recognized in Britain and some other countries, rather than the M.D. degree typically awarded in Israel. Sheba's management said several slots in the program will also be reserved for Israelis.

Deans of Israeli medical schools have expressed strong opposition to the initiative, which they say will hurt the quality of the medical education received by Israeli students and ultimately damage medical care in the country. The school most directly affected is Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, which trains medical students at six hospitals. Of the six, Sheba is the most important training center for the Sackler program. The hospital is also the largest in the country. Sackler has doubled the number of students it trains to 180 per class, in light of an anticipated shortage of doctors in Israel.

The dean of the Sackler school, Yosef Mekori, said: "A large portion of medical education involves bedside instruction with patients and there is a need for skilled training staff and small groups of students. The growing number of medical students has already led to overcrowding in the [hospitals]. The new [Sheba] program will place the continued growth of the [Tel Aviv University] medical school in danger and require us to reduce the number of students in the coming years to preserve our high standards."

Sheba Medical Center rejected the universities' criticism, saying the joint program with schools in Britain and Cyprus provides an added "dimension of excellence." The hospital said the degree awarded is "totally identical" to the M.D. degree and that even with the additional program, Sheba would still meet its obligations in terms of training positions for Israeli medical students.

Health Ministry backs plan

The hospital added that some of the revenue from the new program will provide funding for clinical instructors who will train Sackler students. Sheba also said it would provide scholarships enabling Israeli students to enroll in the program.

The medical center explained that Tel Aviv University had been offered the right of first refusal to participate in the program, gave positive feedback, but ultimately declined to participate. Sheba also said that if the popularity of the program created excess demand, students would be referred to other hospitals in Israel.

The Health Ministry has expressed support for the initiative in light of the shortage of doctors in Israel.

"The preferred option would be adding [medical student] slots at Israeli universities, but unfortunately there is no approval to increase this number. The solution reached [at Sheba] is preferable to no solution at all," the ministry said.

The forum representing the country's medical school deans, however, has begun working to block or delay the implementation of the new program at Sheba. Eran Leitersdorf, who chairs the forum and is the dean of Hebrew University Medical School, said the Council for Higher Education should have been called in to approve the Sheba program, as was done when the opening of a fifth medical school in Safed was proposed.

Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi said the Sheba Medical Center program should be blocked in the same way that a proposed private medical school program in Ashkelon, in cooperation with the University of Gdansk in Poland, was shot down nine years ago. Carmi called the country's medical training infrastructure a national asset that should not be used by outside parties to train foreign students.