February 12, 2006, Updated September 12, 2012

Members of the Israeli medical delegation in Geneva last month. (Photo: Imad Kassis) What was once a frosty relationship between United Nations agencies and the Israeli medical establishment has been thawing of late, according to Israeli physicians who have recently attended meetings with World Health Organization officials and other UN medical-based organizations in Geneva.

The results indicate a trend towards more collaboration between the international organization and Israelis physicians and medical bodies, the doctors told ISRAEL21c.

The meetings were held under the auspices of a weeklong seminar on health leadership organized by the Israeli Medical Association in collaboration with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and major UN agencies based in Geneva.

The 10 members of the Israeli delegation (consisting of seven Jewish and three Arab Israelis) included participants from some of the top Israeli institutions like Rambam Medical Center, Tel Hashomer hospital, and the Clalit and Maccabi health funds. They unanimously saw the seminar as a significant breakthrough in UN policy towards Israel, and a new openness to working with Israeli professionals that hadn’t existed before.

“Previously, I had not been aware of the level of non-involvement between Israeli doctors and the UN organizations. When I heard that there’s only one Israeli doctor working in a full time position within this huge international organization, I couldn’t believe it,” said Dr. Imad Kassis, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

“But all the people we met with had positive attitudes, and were willing to listen and talk to us, and are open to working with Israeli doctors. The atmosphere was positive and encouraging.”

“We found that we had something to say, and that people were listening to us,” added Dr. Alex Blankstein, an orthopedic surgery expert at Sheba Medical Center. “There was definitely interest in further collaborations. I had the impression that people were very interested in what we’re doing here.”

The seminar, called ‘International Health for Israeli Physicians’, was designed to expose the Israeli doctors to UN and related international agencies that have a significant medical component, like the WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, the International Red Cross Federation, the World Heart Federation, International Union Against Cancer, the International Labor Organization, and others.

The initiative to strengthen Israeli physicians and other healthcare professionals’ engagements in international health is lead by Dr Inon Schenker, a senior HIV/AIDS prevention specialist and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who holds also a senior position with the IMA, as its head of international programs.

“Israeli medical achievements speak for themselves,” he told ISRAEL21c. “For most of the organizations we met in Geneva, it was the very first time their senior management met with Israeli physicians and were able to interact in a direct and intimate way. At the same time, it was an opportunity for the group to learn about the structures, policies and working modalities of these agencies.”

Before leaving for Geneva, the group was told by IMA President Dr Yoram Blachar, that “you are not only representing your high professional skills, you are traveling as ambassadors of Israel’s science and medical fields and of the State of Israel. This is a task that carries heavy responsibilities, particularly in times like these.”

Schenker credited many Israeli bodies including the IMA and the Foreign Ministry for working to bring about the change of attitude, but added that the UN organizations themselves had come to a realization that they were cutting off their own noses by not utilizing the vast expertise of the Israeli medical profession.

“This change is a clear message from all UN organizations, and not just the WHO,” Schenker said. “The climax of the seminar was a meeting with European regional director of the WHO – Dr. Marc Danzon.

“His message was very clear – that there are many things Israeli medicine has to offer to WHO and the European Region – in terms of geographic location, language, high standards of medicine, the abundance of specialists in various fields – these were all enabling points for increased engagement and collaboration with Israeli medicine.”

This thaw in UN undeclared policy has been exemplified by concrete cases of Israeli medical expertise being implemented to benefit people in other parts of the world through UN collaborations. Some examples:

– Dr. Bina Rubinovitch, an expert in infectious diseases from the Rabin Medical Center, has been in Turkey – where she had been recruited by the WHO to be a team member of professionals sent to Turkey to assist the government there with the avian flu crisis

– Dr. Dorit Nitzan-Kalusky, former director of the Israel Health Ministry’s Food and Nutrition Service, has been running the WHO office in Belgrade for a few months, responsible for its activities in Balkan countries.

– Dr Itzhak Levav, a psychiatrist who retired from PAHO is consulting in the Mental Health Department of the WHO.

As a result of the Geneva seminar, a number of potentially mutually beneficial projects were discussed, and seeds were planted for future collaborations, with members of the delegation being offered to participate in UN projects.

According to the participants, more Israeli institutions will be invited to submit applications for a ‘Collaborating Center’ status as research centers affiliated with the WHO. They will further the research links with WHO currently tunneled through three such centers in Israel: the gerontology center at the Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem, the juvenile diabetes department of Schneider Childrens’ Hospital, and the community medicine program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Pertaining to my interests, we had some interesting discussions with medical professionals there on techniques we use in Israel for muscular skeletal ultrasound diagnostics, which involved performing dynamic examinations using ultrasound instead of X-rays,” said Sheba’s Blankstein.

Another example of the UN eagerness to learn from Israeli expertise in health is a recent study conducted by the IMA which was commissioned by WHO on migration of physicians to Israel and their absorption.

“Israel absorbed over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, including over 12,000 physicians. The case study by Malke Borow investigated the absorption process of the physicians into the Israeli system,” said Schenker.

In a meeting with the International Office of Migration the delegation from Israel found out that it was very interesting for the IOM to find ways to enable other countries to learn from Israel’s experience. Of particular importance are countries in the European Union, where there’s a dramatic problem with immigration in certain fields, particularly medicine.

“What Israel has done is astonishing from concerned international organization’s point of view,” said Schenker. “To have absorbed such a large number of MDs without disrupting the system, to find work for so many new doctors, pay their salaries, and to have no deterioration in the standards of health care provided. It’s a remarkable achievement that could be provided for the use of other countries through that research.”

For the Israeli doctors in the delegation, the seminar was a resounding success. Blankstein believes the visit will help further break down barriers that had been erected between the UN bodies and Israel, a thought echoed by delegation member Dr. George Schlosser, a retired specialist in family medicine from Rehovot.

“I think that Israel has a lot to contribute, and the trip was a good beginning. I don’t know if it will destroy the barriers. I think that delegations like this must be repeated, and in bigger numbers. But it did move something forward.”

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