Health Ministry: We expect to need waves of volunteers

First wave out of 7,000 foreign doctors wanting to help amid war have come to Israel

With many Israeli physicians called to military duty, organizations in Israel and abroad work with the government to identify the professionals needed most by hospitals and clinics

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Volunteer pediatric surgeon Dr. Avi Schlager from Florida (right) with Schneider Children's Medical Center chief of surgery Dr. Dragan Kravarusic, November 2023. (Courtesy of Schneider Children's Medical Center)
Volunteer pediatric surgeon Dr. Avi Schlager from Florida (right) with Schneider Children's Medical Center chief of surgery Dr. Dragan Kravarusic, November 2023. (Courtesy of Schneider Children's Medical Center)

Twelve thousand doctors, nurses and paramedics from around the world have informed the Health Ministry that they are ready to hop on a plane to Israel and volunteer their services during the ongoing war with the Hamas terror group.

Of the 12,000, some 7,000 are doctors of all specialties. Half are from the United States, and others are from other countries including Sweden, Canada, Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland and New Zealand.

So far, more than 150 of them have come to help out.

“I truly believe that we’re living through one of the inflection points in Jewish history… and we’re going to look back on this time and ask ourselves whether we did everything we could to help in this critical moment,” said Dr. Avi Schlager, a pediatric surgeon from Florida volunteering at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva.

“I am grateful I can contribute [to Israel] in the way that I’m most comfortable and that I feel I can be most helpful,” he said.

The readiness of these physicians — most Jewish, but not all — to leave their busy practices abroad has been heartwarming for Israel’s medical community as it deals with the aftermath of the devastating October 7 onslaught on Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and the ensuing war aimed at vanquishing the terror group.

The terrorists destroyed over 20 Israeli communities in southern Israel, and savagely murdered some 1,200 Israelis in their homes, at IDF bases, on the roads, and at an open-air music festival, as well as torturing and raping some victims. Hamas and other terror groups seized over 240 Israelis and foreign nationals into Gaza and are holding them hostage without allowing the Red Cross to visit them.

Wounded Israeli soldiers from the south arrive at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, October 7, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israeli doctors have been working tirelessly since October 7, treating the more than 5,000 civilians, IDF soldiers, police officers and other security personnel injured on that day and in the ensuing war.

Health Ministry Director-General Dr. Sefi Mendelovich expressed his gratitude to the doctors from around the world willing to come and help out.

“The support from outside has been so immediate and so appreciated. We recognize that your willingness to volunteer here is your way of showing your deepest emotions for us,” he said on a recent Zoom call with 1,400 physicians.

Mendelovich explained that the Health Ministry is working strategically to strengthen the hospitals in the north and south of the country — closest to the front lines. At the same time, it is preparing medical centers in the center of Israel to absorb patients that can be moved from frontline hospitals, or war casualties that require more advanced trauma care.

Dr. Avi Schlager, a volunteer from Florida (right), performs surgery at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, November 2023. (Courtesy of Schneider Children’s Medical Center)

Adam Cutler, who is overseeing the processing of the volunteers’ registrations at the Health Ministry, said this effort to create a “strategic depth of manpower” applies also to the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and community clinics, which may need volunteers to fill in staffing gaps, especially in treating the estimated 200,000 Israelis displaced from their homes in the north and south.

“We are making clear that we are not recruiting volunteer doctors from abroad to serve with the IDF or on the frontlines. We need them on the home front, filling in for Israeli doctors who have been called up for military service,” said Dr. Asher Salmon, head of the Health Ministry’s international relations division.

According to Salmon, volunteer physicians who specialize in trauma and related fields are most needed at this stage. These include emergency medicine doctors, trauma surgeons, anesthesiologists, vascular surgeons, thoracic surgeons, intensive care specialists, burns specialists, plastic surgeons and rehabilitation specialists.

Forensic medicine experts from outside Israel also arrived very soon after October 7 to help with the ongoing, laborious and painful work of identifying the victims of the Hamas massacres and the war. Thus far, 859 civilians have been identified, as have 372 members of the armed forces.

Cutler said dozens of Health Ministry employees are working on the volunteer project, which involves not only vetting thousands of applications but also keeping abreast of rapidly fluctuating gaps in manpower in the health system, as well as matching volunteers from abroad with medical facilities’ needs.

Respectful of doctors’ busy practices and lives, the ministry will not ask anyone to come to Israel unless there is a specific slot for them to fill.

The credentials of physicians matched with hospitals or clinics are validated by the Health Ministry. This process is quick for those holding American medical licenses, usually taking only 24-48 hours. The temporary Israeli licenses issued to the volunteers are specific to the hospital or HMO they will be working at.

Volunteers are expected to commit to being on the ground in Israel for at least two weeks, to be replaced by others who come after them.

Anesthesiologist Prof. Suzanne Karan from the University of Rochester volunteers at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, during the war with Hamas, November 2023. (Courtesy of Hadassah Medical Center)

“We are not expecting this to be a short-term crisis. We expect to need waves of volunteers,” Cutler said.

Originally, the matching process and invitations to doctors were to be done solely by the Health Ministry and hospital administrators. Responsibility for the volunteers’ flights and accommodation would be that of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and aliyah organization, Nefesh b’Nefesh.

However, the task has become too enormous, and various US-based individuals and organizations have stepped up to assist with the matchmaking process.

In some cases, it was just a matter of doctors setting up WhatsApp groups to share relevant information and then making cold calls to Israeli hospitals.

Anesthesiologist Prof. Suzanne Karan from the University of Rochester helped start such a group for hundreds of anesthesiologists around the world. She is now in Israel, volunteering at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.

“Everyone who joined wanted to know how to come here and how to get it done. A lot of anesthesiologists were willing to just book a flight and get here on their own dime,” she said.

An Israeli doctor linked the group up with the Health Ministry so they could get details regarding the bureaucratic procedure, and EMA Care, a case management and medical concierge service, helped the anesthesiologists with organizing the credentialing of paperwork. They didn’t wait to be invited.

Gynecologic oncologist Dr. Mira Hellmann-Ostrov (second from left), organizer of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association’s program to send American doctors to volunteer in Israel during the war. With her are orthopedic surgeon Dr. Eli Ziv, emergency medicine specialist Dr. Abigail Hankin-Wei and cardiologist and intensivist Dr. Michael Grushko — all three of whom are volunteering with Magen David Adom. November 2023 (Courtesy)

“What happened was that we’re all a bunch of pushy people who don’t have the patience to wait. So we just reached out to the hospitals through word of mouth and asked if we were needed. My networking led me to Hadassah, where they said they could use an anesthesiologist,” she said.

The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA) stepped up to help match American doctors with Israeli hospitals and with Magen David Adom, the national emergency medical response organization. JOWMA is cooperating with the Health Ministry and other non-profits like Emergency Volunteers Project, a disaster rescue and relief organization that deploys teams to Israel in times of crisis.

“We wanted to help facilitate the matching. We are in constant contact with the Health Ministry and they submit to us the specialties that are being requested by hospitals,” said New Jersey-based oncologic gynecologist Dr. Mira Hellmann-Ostrov, who is coordinating JOWMA delegations to Israel.

Hellmann-Ostrov shared that her organization has been covering the flight and other costs of volunteers, but that many of them have insisted on making generous donations to JOWMA to offset its outlay.

Ariel Katz, co-founder and CEO of New York-based tech company H1, has been making use of its product to identify physicians willing to volunteer in Israel and match them with hospitals.

“Our company basically profiles every doctor in the world and knows everything about them. We have about 10 million doctors on our platform. The best analogy to it would be a LinkedIn for doctors,” Katz explained.

Usually, H1’s product is used to connect pharma and insurance companies and medical human resource departments with physicians. It’s also helpful for doctors and researchers who want to find colleagues to collaborate with on projects. But after October 7, Katz felt it was imperative to immediately launch a humanitarian crisis wing.

H1 founder and CEO Ariel Katz was able to organize thousands of American doctors interested in volunteering in Israel during the war with Hamas, matching them to Israeli hospitals in need. (Courtesy)

“I felt like I was at war. But I was in New York City and couldn’t go to Israel. I asked myself,  ‘What am I doing, sitting here trying to make money and work with pharma companies?’ I decided we needed to do something,” Katz recalled.

“So I pulled five people off whatever they were working on and told them to contact every doctor in the US and ask them if they wanted to volunteer to go over to Israel now,” he said.

Initially, 530,000 people responded. After H1 followed up with them by asking them to fill out a Google form, there were still thousands who said they were willing to volunteer. Katz then asked his team to reach out to every single hospital and 4,000 doctors in Israel to do the necessary matchmaking. H1’s tech capabilities were able to zero in on the American doctors who met the exact criteria the Israeli health system was looking for.

Katz’s efforts have resulted so far in a couple of dozen American doctors arriving in Israel. JOWMA has sent 12. Both said they hoped that there wouldn’t be a need to send many more, but that they would be there to help for as long as needed.

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