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Medical residents threaten mass resignations after plan to shorten shifts delayed

Postponement sparks fresh protest among trainee doctors; chair of residents organization says government ‘failed both professionally and morally’

Dr. Rey Biton (center), head of the Mirsham organization of medical residents, holds a press conference at Assuta Medical Center in Ashdod, August 1, 2022. (Flash90)
Dr. Rey Biton (center), head of the Mirsham organization of medical residents, holds a press conference at Assuta Medical Center in Ashdod, August 1, 2022. (Flash90)

Hospital residents renewed their struggle against 26-hour shifts on Monday in response to a government announcement that a plan to cut the shifts to 18 hours had been delayed until September 2023.

Speaking at a press briefing at Assuta Medical Center in Ashdod, Dr. Rey Biton, head of the Mirsham organization of medical residents, gave an ultimatum to the government, threatening a mass resignation of staff if the decision remains unchanged by August 25.

“At the same time, in the coming days we will take extensive protest action inside and outside hospitals,” Biton vowed, labeling the postponement a “death sentence.”

The plan to gradually shorten shifts was supposed to take effect earlier this year, starting with a pilot program in 10 hospitals in the so-called periphery areas, outside Israel’s central cities. This followed threats of mass resignations last year by thousands of medical residents in protest of the long shifts. The protesters had warned at the time that the proposed government plan was announced, in October 2021, that it was too vague and had no clear rollout.

The announcement on Sunday had come in response to a Labor Court petition filed in April by the Clalit health fund that said there was not enough manpower to absorb a cut in resident work hours and as a result, public health would be affected, according to the Maariv newspaper. The petition was filed against the Health Ministry and the Economy Ministry.

In response, Economy Minister Orna Barbivai said on behalf of the government that the matter could only be resolved by the next Knesset following the November 1 elections, according to Hebrew media reports.

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai attends a conference in Modi’in, May 26, 2022. (Flash90)

But Biton claimed on Monday that elections were “a poor excuse for lack of governance.”

She said: “This government failed both professionally and morally, both because it didn’t stand by any commitment and by any agreement with us, and also because it continues the abusive and dangerous employment under conditions of slavery.”

Last October, thousands of residents resigned in protest of the 26-hour shifts they are expected to work. The government then proposed a plan under which the shifts at 10 hospitals in outlying areas would be shortened to 16-18 hours. It was to begin on April 1.

In its petition, Clalit claimed another 300 doctor positions would be needed to cover the shortfall if residents’ hours were cut.

In addition, hospitals in the periphery said they did not have enough staff to fill the shifts and the Finance Ministry refused to budget new doctor positions.

Residents in more central hospitals also rejected the plan, demanding that shifts at their places of work also be reduced.

Medical residents demonstrate for better work conditions in Tel Aviv, October 9, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A follow-up report by the Health Ministry suggested cutting shifts in the periphery and at some central hospitals to 21 hours, a proposal the residents backed.

In the meantime, no changes to shifts were made.

The government had promised that after the pilot program in the 10 outlying hospitals, the plan would expand to all hospitals if the required budget could be found and if a committee set up to examine the issue could establish that the level of medical care was not compromised.

Up until the year 2000, residents worked 36-hour shifts and sometimes longer. That year, an agreement was signed to reduce the shifts to 26 hours with a two-hour break.

In 2012, following appeals to reduce the hours again, the government adjusted the regulations to limit residents to two shifts a week, and for them to not work more than 71.5 hours in a week.

Most hospitals have not implemented the new regulations.

According to a 2016 poll published in The Marker, 72 percent of medical residents worked more than 26 hours in a row at least once a month, 42% didn’t sleep during their shift, and 27% worked more than 71.5 hours a week.

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