Physicians Warn Country May Not Be Prepared for Massive Disease Outbreak

The next disaster: a deadly epidemic.

As some blame Israel's lack of preparedness for the challenges it is facing in taming the Carmel wildfire, physicians are meeting with Finance Ministry officials to discuss the decreasing number of doctors under age 65. That is one factor that could make it difficult for Israel to cope with a national disaster of a different sort: the outbreak of an epidemic.

Over the last several years, the Health Ministry has identified the risks of such an outbreak and established emergency guidelines. But Israel could still be left lacking hospital beds and doctors in the posited worst-case scenario - a quarter of the population (1.6 million people ) sick, 10,000 hospitalized and 2,900 dying.

hospital - Moran Mayan - December 6 2010
Moran Mayan

This could necessitate 780,000 visits to the 25,850 doctors under age 65 registered in Israel in 2009.

This is 7.8 percent fewer doctors than the country had in 2000. The number of nurses - 41,597 in 2009 - also decreased by 7.2 percent.

The Health Ministry, which held an extensive exercise in June 2007 to train medical staff for a potential epidemic, said in a statement that it had a preparedness plan in place.

"The ministry has a preparedness plan for coping with an outbreak of contagious diseases and epidemics, as demonstrated during the swine flu pandemic," it said. "We have the necessary inventory for all the expected scenarios, it is current and replenished as needed. The Health Ministry is unceasingly preparing for emergency situations."

One suggestion aimed at increasing the number of doctors in the country, which is being discussed with treasury officials, is raising the salaries of doctors in outlying areas and specialists in fields where the shortage is most intense.

Last week the opening of Israel's fifth medical school was officially announced, and that is due to increase the pool of doctors in the long term. The school will be affiliated with Bar-Ilan University and is expected to open in Safed next year.

The number of students who will be admitted to Israel's existing medical schools will also increase, though not by as much as the Health Ministry's director general would like. The health and finance ministries have recently begun giving scholarships to nursing students in outlying areas.

The health system has other problems too. At two hospital beds per 1,000 people, Israel has one of the lowest ratios of beds per residents in the West, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

However, the health and finance ministries decided in July to add 200 to 300 hospital beds per year over the next two years, ending a policy instituted over the past decade to freeze the number of hospital beds.

Health officials also said they may get funding for more beds as part of negotiations with the treasury over doctors' wages. Talks began earlier this month.