Sapir College President Reuben Ilia in his office at Soroka Medical Center
Sapir College President Reuben Ilia in his office at Soroka Medical Center on June 29, 2010. Photo by Alberto Denkberg
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The new president of Sapir College, Prof. Reuben Ilia, is proposing a plan to the state to address the shortage of doctors in Israel's outlying areas, he told Haaretz.

The proposed plan entails inviting Israeli medical students who are studying abroad to return here for their fourth, fifth and sixth years of study, while guaranteeing them an Israeli medical degree from Sapir College and the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

Ilia, who in addition to his recent appointment as president of Sapir, also serves as a senior lecturer in the medical school at Ben-Gurion University and is head of cardiology at Soroka Medical Center, said he is presenting the plan this week to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, to the planning and budgeting committee, and to Silvan Shalom, the minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee.

Many Israeli students who wish to study medicine do so abroad, particularly in Eastern Europe, thanks to highly competitive spots in Israel's medical schools.

"We will be bringing back some 40 to 50 fourth-year Israeli medical students from foreign universities every year," Ilia said. "They'll get the basics abroad, and then they'll get the rest here, on a much higher level. Then they'll intern in hospitals in the periphery."

Ilia is proposing that candidates be accepted to this scheme on two conditions: Only students intending to specialize in medical fields in which there is shortage in Israel will be eligible, and the students would commit to completing their internship years exclusively in the country's periphery.

"The students won't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition fees every year. They'll come here and work in hospitals in the periphery. Everyone comes out a winner - especially the patients," Ilia said.

"There is an acute shortage of doctors in those hospitals," he explained. "Nearly every hospital lacks 20 to 30 pediatricians, family doctors, anesthesiologists, internists and pathologists, and things will become even more difficult in the future. Even today there aren't enough doctors in internal wards, and day-to-day work there faces enormous difficulties.

Plugging the brain drain

"It's inconceivable that every year some 100 to 150 overseas students come here to study in the international departments of the Technion, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University medical schools, and then go back abroad," Ilia continued. "It's true they are paying high tuition fees here - but still, instead of training the Israeli students who venture abroad, we train doctors who don't end up staying in the country."

Ilia envisions the project working in close cooperation with the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

"This is an excellent idea," said Soroka director Dr. Michael Scharf. "We'll certainly adopt this welcome project. I think it will be a great achievement if we can bring back Negev residents who have gone to study abroad, because they will stay with us after completing their studies."