Israel announced it was closing three lucrative American medical training programs at Israeli universities to free up space for local students as the country faces a shortage of doctors.
Through these programs, foreign nationals – mostly Americans, but not exclusively – study medicine in English while living in Israel, then register for their residencies in the United States.
The move, which was approved by the Council for Higher Education, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, is expected to increase the number of Israeli medical students by 130 each year, starting in 2023. It comes after Israel stopped recognizing medical degrees from a number of countries, mostly in Eastern Europe, due to quality issues, leading to a looming shortage in the number of doctors.
“This will help meet the growing and growing needs of the State of Israel, as part of our overall program to significantly increase the number of medical students,” said Education Minister Yifat Shasha- Biton, in a press release.
Three universities currently offer US-accredited programs: Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and Technion: Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Through these programs, foreign nationals study medicine in English while living in Israel and then register for residencies in the United States. In a small number of cases, after completing their residency, some students return to Israel to practice medicine, but the majority remain in the United States or Canada.
The closure will take effect in early fall 2023 and currently enrolled students will be able to complete their studies.
Although Shasha-Biton’s ministry and the Council for Higher Education touted the closure of U.S. programs as a major step forward in addressing the looming doctor shortage, they neglected to mention the costs — literal and figurative — of the closure. of these programs, some of which have been running for decades.
Indeed, medical studies currently represent a major source of income for the three Israeli universities that offer them. Tuition fees for US programs – around $40,000 per year – are more than 10 times higher than those for Israeli medical programs, at around NIS 11,000 ($3,400) per year.
To compensate for this loss, the government will subsidize universities NIS 58,000 ($18,000) per year for each additional Israeli student gained, although this is still far less than what they would receive from the canceled programs.
In less quantifiable terms, the closure of these programs also closes an important conduit for relations between Israel and the Diaspora. Through these programs, thousands of American doctors — mostly Jews, but not exclusively — have spent considerable time in Israel, learning about and developing deep connections with the country and its people.
Although it was not immediately clear whether his office had been consulted on the matter in advance, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman said he supported the decision.
“I believe the right decision was made in this case. Today we have many ways to promote relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, including for example the multiple educational programs of Masa and Taglit,” Shai said through a spokesperson, referring to short vacation-oriented trips.
“I think in this case it is appropriate to increase the number of places available for Israeli citizens in medical schools, instead of giving them no choice but to study abroad and maybe not to go home,” he said.
A number of national and international studies over the years have warned of an impending shortage of doctors in Israel, as those reaching retirement age are not being replaced quickly enough.
According to a 2019 OECD report, almost 60% of Israeli doctors are trained abroad, well above the OECD average of 18%. This has been further limited because Israel has limited the number of countries whose medical programs are recognized by the Council for Higher Education.
“The shortage of human resources in the healthcare system is a national problem that has been neglected for years, and today most medical students study abroad. These spaces are needed for Israeli students rather than foreign students who are not expected to work in the Israeli healthcare system one day,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said in a statement.
Closing US programs will not fully resolve Israel’s looming doctor shortage or significantly reduce the number of Israeli medical students in overseas programs. However, Horowitz said plans are underway to increase the number of slots available in Israeli medical programs in other ways as well.
“This is part of a wider effort we are making to get to the root of the problem,” the health minister said.
The shortage has generally been attributed to the inability to accommodate medical students in hospitals, not classrooms.
In the coming year, Israeli medical schools will have places available for just under 1,000 new students, 70 more than the previous year.