Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon (Eliyahu Hershkowitz)
A patient in a hallway at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz
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The nurses' union is threatening a nationwide strike as of next Tuesday to protest overcrowding in hospital wards. But it will be a strictly targeted strike: They will merely refuse to admit patients to any ward where the occupancy rate exceeds 100 percent.

The measure was decided on yesterday at an emergency meeting held at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

"This is the first step in a difficult battle," the union said in a statement. "But when patients are humiliated, lie around the wards like homeless people and sometimes even die because there are no nurses to care for them, we can't stand idly by. It's an issue of life and death."

Ilana Cohen, who chairs the union, told the emergency conference that "the crowding in internal medicine wards is intolerable, and nothing has changed over the last 35 years. There isn't anybody I haven't approached and warned about the situation over the years. The only thing I haven't done is place a note in the Western Wall to beg for salvation."

Data presented by the union showed that the higher the number of patients in the wards, the lower the nurse-to-patient ratio was. Thus a ward with 42 patients, for instance, has 3.4 percent fewer nurses than required by the official standard, which mandates one nurse for every 1.17 beds. But a ward with 57 patients has 16.2 percent fewer nurses than required.

The nurses' strike, if it materializes, could have a significant impact, especially in internal medicine and pediatric wards, which are both overcrowded this winter. There has been a slight decline in the number of patients since the peak recorded early last week, but many wards are still hovering around 100 percent occupancy.

According to the Health Ministry, the country's 28 general hospitals had an average occupancy rate of 105 percent this week, with the rate rising to 108 percent in internal medicine and pediatric wards. But in some hospitals the overcrowding was far worse.

Among internal medicine wards, the worst overcrowding was at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus, with an occupancy rate of 165 percent. It was followed by the capital's Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem (152 percent ), Laniado Hospital in Netanya (131 percent ), Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center in Hadera (127 percent ), Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya (126 percent ) and Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv (124 percent ).

In pediatric wards, the worst overcrowding was at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin (171 percent ), followed by Hadassah Ein Karem (163 percent ), Hadassah Mount Scopus (158 percent ), Rambam Medical Center in Haifa (152 percent ) and Ichilov (152 percent ).

Moreover, of the 731 patients on respirators nationwide, fully 408 are not in intensive care units, as they should be, due to lack of space. Most of them are in internal medicine wards instead.

The Health Ministry confirmed that the data presented by the nurses' union was correct. "A meeting with the Finance Ministry on the matter is planned for this week," it added. "There is definitely a need for immediate solutions beyond the long-term agreement that the Health Ministry obtained over the last month."

The long-term agreement in question is for the addition of 950 hospital beds over the next six years. But while the treasury has agreed in principle, the deal has yet to be finalized.