Israel's Health Care System Seeks to Tackle Racial Bias for First Time

New panel is the first formal acknowledgement of such problems in Israel's public health care system.

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli nurse who did not identify herself adjusts a protective mask as she stands outside the room of a swine flu patient at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, Israel, Thursday, April 30, 2009.

A new committee to investigate racial and ethnic discrimination in the country’s health system has begun its work and is scheduled to submit recommendations in about six months.

Headed by Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto, the panel is the first formal acknowledgement of such problems in the health care system.

The committee’s 10 members are all ministry staffers, but input will be sought from academics, nongovernmental organizations and patients. Grotto said meetings are planned with representatives of over 50 organizations, and members of the public are also invited to weigh in.

The committee has been tasked with assessing the scope of ethnic and racial discrimination in the health system, drafting policy to combat the problem and creating a campaign of prevention, education and training. Emphasis will be placed on increasing employee diversity, especially among senior medical personnel.

“Displays of racism toward patients or caregivers are intolerable, and we’ve set a goal of zero racism,” Grotto said. He said that beyond the moral aspect, racial and ethnic discrimination is a health issue, and that ending it could reduce health inequality among different population groups.”

Many communities in Israel have been affected by ethnic and racial discrimination in the health system. Prominent examples include the disappearance of Yemenite children from hospitals during the early years of the state; the refusal to accept blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants, which ended only recently; and allegations of inadequate services for transgender patients. There are also countless smaller incidents of verbal violence, employment discrimination and patients refusing treatment by a doctor of a certain religious or ethnic background.

“We’ve seen a deterioration over the years,” said Hadas Ziv of Physicians for Human Rights, which for seven years has offered medical and nursing students workshops on medical ethics and patients’ rights. “We feel it in the students’ questions and statements. ... The system is increasingly a reflection of what’s happening among the public,” she said.

But such attitudes have dogged the health system from its inception. Dr. Joseph Meir, head of the Clalit health maintenance organization for 30 years, from 1928, was quoted in the doctorate of Sachlav Stoler-Liss as saying, “We have no interest in the 10th child or even the seventh of poor families from the East.”

And as recently as 2012, Prof. Gabriel Barbash, then director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, complained about the high birthrate of Eritrean asylum seekers, saying, “The problem is that they closed the border fence, but they didn’t close off natural increase, and the number of Eritreans born here rises from year to year.”