Israelis Turned Down for Medical School to Make Room for Foreigners

Some 15% of first-year students come from abroad and pay high fees for the privilege

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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A group of medical students at Israel's Tel Hashomer Hospital
A group of medical students at Israel's Tel Hashomer HospitalCredit: Alon Ron
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

A year of Israeli medical school will cost a foreign student between $37,000 and $39,000, 14 times what the maximum an Israeli student will pay for the same education, according to a survey by TheMarker.

>> Majority of Doctors in Israel Went to Medical Schools Overseas, New Report Reveals

Data provided to TheMarker from Israeli universities showed that some 520 foreign students are studying this year in one of three programs operated by Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Ben-Gurion University.

They account for 15% of all students starting medical school in Israel each year.

The foreign students, most of them from the United States and Canada, return to their home countries when they complete their studies and don’t practice in Israel.

The figures on foreign students follow a report in TheMarker last week showing that 58% of all doctors in Israel were foreign-trained as of 2016, the highest proportion among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That was almost three times the OECD average.

The standard explanation from the healthcare system and medical school deans is that the low rate of acceptance in medical schools is due to the limited number of spaces available in clinical fields of study (training in hospitals).

The shortage is regularly cited by those who oppose establishing additional medical schools or significantly increasing the number of medical students in the existing faculties. However, limiting the number of spots means that every foreign student enrolled at an Israeli medical school comes at the cost of another doctor to serve Israel’s population.

The Council of Higher Education sees international students as part of a wider effort to raise the profile of Israeli academics globally.

“Academics are an important part of the global drive, including accepting the best students and researchers, collaborating with leading institutions in the world and enhancing the reputation of institutions in Israel,” the council stated. “In addition, strengthening international links in academia help [Israel] politically, socially and economically.”

The council said it was working to increase the number of places for clinical training.

Prof. Arnon Afek, associate director general of Sheba Medical Center and director of the New York State/American MD Program at Tel Aviv University, defended the system as part of Israel’s place in the global medical system.

“Our primary responsibility is to teach Israelis and not foreigners, but these programs nevertheless have their value,” he said.

“We live inside a small [healthcare] system and if we want our doctors to acquire experience and an awareness of the global medical system, we send them to the U.S. for specialist training,” he said. “It’s a kind of trade-off – we don’t just receive, we also give.”

He added that the 2,000 graduates of the Tel Aviv program are “ambassadors of Israel in the U.S.” Afek said there was no shortage of clinical training sites, just a problem of poor planning and usage.

In any case, Israeli medical schools have good financial reasons to encourage foreign students. With tuition running at $39,000 a year at Tel Aviv University and $37,000 at the Technion and Ben-Gurion, foreign students are providing far more income to the schools than Israeli students.

Even after taking into account the fact that Israeli students are subsidized by the government, foreign students bring in more revenue to the medical schools. Medical schools receive a subsidy of 50,000 shekels ($13,800) per student getting a bachelor’s degree and 63,000 shekels per student getting a master’s degree.

Some officials in the healthcare system and medical schools take issue with Israel’s accepting foreign students.

“There are doctors at the hospitals instructing American students and they don’t like it,” said Dr. Itzhak Papo, a senior lecturer in surgery at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

“It pains me to see all those bright young Israelis who got ‘only’ a 730 in the psychometric exam and not a 760 and could have been excellent doctors but won’t be accepted to medical school. And if their family doesn’t have the money to send them abroad, they have to give up entirely on the idea of the profession because the only place you can study medicine at a reasonable cost is in Israel.”

The Central Bureau of Statistics this week released figures showing that medical school is by far the hardest academic program in Israel to get into. More than 71% of applicants are rejected. The average score for candidates in the psychometric exam in 2017 was 735, well above the average for any other discipline.

The avergage score was 680 in computer science, 668 in law and 658 in construction engineering. Medical students had higher math scores in the exam than computer science students on average.

The demanding scores have created a situation where 60% of Israeli medical students have no choice but to study abroad.

Prof. Eran Dolev, a former chairman of the Israel Medical Association’s ethics bureau, expressed similar reservations about training foreign students.

Apart from the lost places for future Israeli doctors, he has practical objections based on his experience when he directed the internal medicine department at Ichilov Hospital. He said, “I don’t think it’s possible to train doctors [this way], some of whom didn’t know Hebrew and couldn’t communicate with the patients.”

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