Dozens of senior doctors call for replacing Health Ministry director-general

Dozens of senior doctors call for replacing Health Ministry director-general

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov is first non-physician to hold position of nation’s top public health official; in letter to country’s leaders, medical staff say job requires a professional

Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Dozens of medical department and clinic managers signed a letter Monday calling for new leadership at the Health Ministry, saying it should be led by medical professionals.

Although the letter did not name Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, he is notably the first non-doctor to hold the position. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman also has no medical training, but a lack of professional background is common among Israeli ministers, who are almost always political appointments.

The signatories addressed addressed their plea to “Israel’s leaders,” saying that as senior doctors their “voices must be heard.”

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic around the world, which has seen an outbreak in Israel as well, “the supreme importance of a strong and stable health system becomes clear,” they wrote, charging that public health has under been “constant strangulation” for years.

The doctors demanded that “at the head of the health care system there be a professional, a doctor with clinical knowledge and close familiarity with the field of medical care.”

“Beneath him there should be a broad team of professional people, including senior clinical staff, to form recommendations that are not based on a single opinion,” they wrote.

In addition, the administrative body responsible for coordination between different medical organizations during the coronavirus crisis should include senior clinicians “who are very familiar with the situation on the streets in the country.”

Illustrative: Workers inside a building at Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer Hospital, which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The doctors urged prioritizing the safety of medical staff and refilling depleted supplies, including quality masks and eye protection, sanitary wipes and more ventilators for hospitals.

For the future, they demanded that the public health system be given budgeting priority in contrast to the situation over past years in which, they wrote, it has been left “to starve, to shrink, to suffocate and to deteriorate in its professionalism and ability.”

The Health Ministry has faced criticism from medical workers who say it is not providing them with the necessary equipment and protective clothing they need to stay safe as they treat patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

However, Ronni Gamzu, director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and a former director-general of the Health Ministry, defended Siman-Tov, telling Ynet that what the country needed was not decades of medical experience, but rather “administration and balance between health and real life.”

He noted that when Siman-Tov had pushed for Israel to close its borders to those coming from China and Italy in the early days of the virus outbreak in those countries, even though he was criticized for the impact it would have on tourism and the aviation industry.

The same, he noted, is true of the Health Ministry’s insistence on self-quarantine for anyone who may have been exposed to the virus through contact with those who are later diagnosed, a measure that has sent tens of thousands into isolation at home, including thousands of medical staff.

“It was the right thing to do,” Gamzu said.

Then director-General of the Health Ministry Prof. Ronni Gamzu at a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem. April 23, 2014. (Flash 90)

The letter came the same day as the publication a state comptroller report, prepared before the coronavirus struck, that found the country’s health system was not prepared for the outbreak of a pandemic. The report highlighted a lack of hospital beds, isolation rooms, ill-equipped intensive care unit and a lack of cooperation between the Health and Defense ministries.

As of Tuesday morning 1,656 people in Israel have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and one person has died.

Before ascending to the position of the nation’s top public health professional, Bar Siman-Tov, 43, spent much of his career in the Finance Ministry.

In 2015, when the economist became the first non-doctor to lead the Health Ministry, the Israel Medical Association appealed to the High Court of Justice against the appointment, contending that his lack of medical expertise made him egregiously unfit for the job. The government responded with its view that an economist was no less suited to manage the health system than a physician.

The court took the government’s side and let the appointment stand. But even as he declined to intervene, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote of his “hope that the experiment succeeds… and the health system and the public all benefit from the skills the new director general possesses in the fields of health economics and regulation.”

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