Galilee struggles with coronavirus fallout; mobilizes student doctors
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Galilee struggles with coronavirus fallout; mobilizes student doctors

Many in region’s large Arab population had difficulty accessing telemedicine facilities during lockdowns, leading to clinics facing massive backlogs

Students from the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine and the Technion who participated in a nationwide volunteer initiative organized by the Federation of Israel Medical Students (Omri Cohen)
Students from the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine and the Technion who participated in a nationwide volunteer initiative organized by the Federation of Israel Medical Students (Omri Cohen)

While the Galilee region has been less affected by COVID-19 than central Israel, the northern region was hard hit by the pandemic’s knock-on effects, medical officials said Wednesday.

The region has seen a huge backlog of cases develop from non-coronavirus related illnesses and schools were dispatching medical students to local clinics to try to ease the situation.

“There is lots of pressure now as we try to get back to routine,” said Youssef Awni of Clalit Health Services, one of the main health maintenance organizations covering the region.

Awni, deputy-director of the northern region for Clalit, said the situation was exacerbated by the fact the region’s large Arab population had difficulty accessing telemedicine facilities during closures amid already high incidence of chronic illness.

Youssef Awni (courtesy)

“Demand is particularly high in the Galilee as there are very high levels of chronic illness, disproportionate numbers of smokers, and lots and lots of diabetics,” Awni said.

He said the Arab communities had difficulty accessing digital health services, the staple of Israeli healthcare under lockdown, due to lower-than-normal access to computers, unfamiliarity with technology, and difficulty with online interfaces if they are in Hebrew.

Concerned about clinics becoming overloaded, directors of a Safed-based medical school have decided to dispatch 80 students to take the pressure off doctors, by working in clinics and performing home visits, starting Sunday.

“The reality on the ground, with a backlog of patients across clinics and across HMOs, meant it is very important for us, as a socially-accountable faculty, to step up,” said Sivan Spitzer-Shohat head of population health education at Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine.

Sivan Spitzer-Shohat head of population health education at Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine (courtesy of Azrieli Faculty of Medicine)

She noted that when COVID-19 was at its height, there were some hotspots in the Galilee, such as Deir al-Asad and Bi’ina which had local lockdowns in late April, but said that as a region it has fared relatively well.

Her students, who are in the third and fourth year of study, already have clinical experience, Spitzer-Shohat said. She added that they include speakers of Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English, which means they can serve the Galilee’s diverse population

They will spend ten hours a week helping the HMOs, and will assist with coronavirus testing and education, as well as seeing patients with chronic conditions. The Russell Berrie Foundation, an American philanthropic organization, is funding the project so that the students can receive a stipend.

Spitzer-Shohat said: “The Galilee started the crisis with more chronic disease and less access to services, in particular specialty care, than other areas. My immediate hope is that we can mitigate the disadvantage that these patients are facing after the crisis, as we’re concerned that otherwise the knock-on effect of  the coronavirus lockdown could be long-standing.”

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