“We were naïve. We thought they would reach a settlement soon,” Dr. Moshe Katz says, reflecting on the dispiriting doctors’ strike that drags on in Israel.

Dr. Katz is the recent recipient of Sheba Hospital’s Intern of the Year Award, prestigious recognition of his talent and leadership that grants him invitation to an international medical conference of his choosing. Unfortunately, his opportunity to confer with distinguished colleagues is tainted by the medical profession’s turmoil at home that has frustrated Israeli health care providers and caused a serious disruption in health care delivery.

Israeli doctors protest their government’s management of their careers and hospital facilities. Physicians’ salaries and working conditions have not been reviewed since 2000. I.M.A, Israel Medical Association, the labor organization for health care professionals, negotiated a 10-year agreement that promised a 25 percent pay increase for all doctors by 2008, and an additional 600 doctors trained by 2010. The 4 percent annual inflation in Israel over the past ten years renders the pay increase meaningless. The plight of Dr. Katz and others reveals that physicians in Israel are in serious financial straits.

“Considering that traditional training for an Israeli doctor requires six years studying basic medicine at a university, a one-year internship, and then a 4 to 6-year residency, my 10,000 NIS/month, (roughly $2,700/month), hardly reflects the time-earned expertise and commitment doctors pay to their profession,” Katz says of his personal situation.

At the end of the day, however, Katz recognizes that the conflict is less about money than about manpower and working conditions. The government has failed to supply the promised additional doctors.

When their contract came up for renewal in July 2010, doctors pragmatically reassessed conditions in Israeli hospitals, hoping to negotiate a new deal with the government. Currently the system is 650 doctors short and by 2016 the number is projected to grow exponentially to 7,000. Perceiving a crisis, I.M.A estimates that an additional 1,000 doctors are needed immediately to accommodate Israel’s growing population. This request meets strong resistance from the Ministry of Finance, and is countered with policy changes that undermine doctors’ professional role and their value to Israeli society.

“Starting in January we now have to keep time cards, but we are allowed to spend an extra 2 minutes with each patient in the clinic,” Katz says, explaining the de-professionalization by government micromanagement of doctors. An approach that likens doctors to unskilled workers and forgets that Israeli physicians provide the public a critically essential service, 24/7. Consequently, Israeli doctors have gone on strike.

In addition, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently told the Health Ministry that the government would bring in physicians from India if the doctors do not agree to work on his terms. “In other words,” says Katz, “the government prefers cheaper doctors to employing better skilled, Israeli trained doctors. As a result, they are driving many physicians to look for work abroad.”

The doctors’ strike is already the longest sustained labor movement in Israel’s history. It has left the country with a frustrated and exhausted medical workforce and has broken a tradition of dedicated professional service. There is growing disillusionment amongst the ranks of doctors. “We don’t abandon the patients, but we have to protest somehow,” Katz explains his participation in a recent strike.

Despite his awards, Dr. Katz feels as though he is being held back from pursuing his passion and from achieving his ambition: properly caring for his patients.

Jeffrey Barken, Cornell University graduate 2008, and University of Baltimore MFA student, is currently writing a collection of stories, This Year in Jerusalem, Next Time in America, based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel. Contact Jeffrey at jfbarken@gmail.com.

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