'We welcome it, but unfortunately it's not enough'

Rejecting labor deal, protesting medical interns vow to quit en masse Thursday

Group decries proposal to gradually drop hours that will only help 10% of doctors-in-training at first; minister says system not prepared if thousands resign as threatened

Medical interns demonstrate for better work conditions outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 6, 2021 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Medical interns demonstrate for better work conditions outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 6, 2021 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A plan announced by ministers on Wednesday that would see medical interns’ shifts reduced to 18 hours by 2026 was immediately rejected by representatives of the doctors-in-training, who said it did not go far enough and announced that thousands of them would instead present resignation letters Thursday.

According to the proposal, only interns at 10 hospitals in outlying areas would see their shifts scaled back from 26 hours. The plan would expand to all hospitals later, but only if the necessary budget can be found and if a committee set up to examine the issue finds there has been no deterioration in the level of medical care.

The Mirsham organization of medical interns said the proposal would only initially improve the work conditions of 10 percent of medical interns and that as a result, the resignations of up to 2,300 would be submitted Thursday. According to Channel 12, the resignations would only go into effect in two weeks.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, speaking to Channel 12, said he was flabbergasted the interns weren’t “celebrating” the government proposal. He said the healthcare system was not prepared for a mass resignation of the essential medical staff.

“I don’t understand the point of resigning instead of celebrating the plan [to reduce shifts],” said the health minister.

“We aren’t prepared for a mass resignation tomorrow. I hope it doesn’t happen and I don’t know what it would achieve,” added Horowitz.

Representatives for the medical interns, however, dug their heels in and said the government compromise would not suffice.

“We welcome [the plan], but unfortunately it’s not enough,” said Dr. Ray Bitton, head of the organization which is demanding that 25% of interns receive shortened shifts, according to Hebrew media.

“We have presented clear requirements for how the plan should look, but at the moment there is only a reduction to 18 hours in the peripheral areas of the country, and not in the internal medicine departments or emergency rooms, and there is no promise for the outline to continue, meaning that it is reducing the shifts of only 10 percent of interns,” she told the Kan public broadcaster.

“Therefore, we apologize to the citizens of the State of Israel and tomorrow we will announce the resignation of 2,300 students and interns,” Bitton said.

Medical interns demonstrate for better work conditions in Tel Aviv on October 4, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At a press conference in Jerusalem, Horowitz and Economy Minister Orna Barbivai announced the proposal but admitted that they were acting under constraints and it was therefore not ideal.

“The plan is not perfect,” Barbivai said. “But the most important thing in this program is a breakthrough that marks a value-based goal of what we expect from the future generation of medics with regards to labor relations, and working hours are only part of the story.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, right, and Economy Minister Orna Barbivai hold a press conference in the Israeli parliament discussing the working conditions of medical interns, October 6, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Horowitz said the proposal marked a breakthrough after years of inaction on the matter of working hours for interns.

“After years of talk we have moved on to action. Until now no one wanted to touch the issue and ran away from it like wildfire because it is so complex and tangled. And instead of postponing it time and time again as has been done so far, we decided to switch to taking action,” he said.

Horowitz said that he saw no gain in the interns resigning, saying the process of reducing hours would take time due to the extra doctors needed.

“I do not understand what it will help. We are moving toward them, but it takes time because more doctors are needed, and that is the logic of starting in the periphery and then moving it to all over the country. I want it to happen immediately for everyone, but there are not enough doctors and we have to do it gradually,” he said.

Interns have held a number of protests on the matter in recent weeks; roughly 500 demonstrated outside the Tel Aviv home of Horowitz on Monday evening, and 10 were arrested.

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