December 21, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

One of the original Talpionnaires at Sheba Medical Center: Dr. Josef Haik, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon whose specialty is burns.People bow to them in hospital hallways. Their work is felt around the globe.
Meet the “Talpionnaires”, a small team of outstanding Israeli doctors and researchers who are chosen to take part in a special medical leadership program at the Haim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv.

In Israel, conditions for doctors working in the public healthcare system are bleak. A starting salary can be as little as $1,500 a month, while the cost of living in Israel matches that of America. In some cases it is higher.

Like physicians in the United States, Israel’s best doctors are lured quickly into private practice where they can charge higher fees for their expertise. In particular, many of Israel’s best research doctors are moving overseas, where salaries are higher and opportunities abound.

Advancing Israeli medicine

In an effort to stop this vital brain drain and to advance Israeli medicine, which is already world renowned, directors at the Haim Sheba Medical Center decided to set up a specialist Talpiot Program (named after the Israeli army’s own Talpiot program which is designed to encourage technological excellence). Their goal: to try to encourage the country’s most promising doctors to stay.

Founded six years ago, every two years eight outstanding physicians are chosen to join the prestigious professional development program. The star doctors receive grants of $60,000 each to continue their scientific research, and the connections to help them in the industry. In return, they commit themselves to working for Sheba for five years, and continue to treat patients.

“These people have a spark of leadership, charisma, intellectual ability and, of course, a degree in medicine plus an additional field. They will be the leaders of the world of medicine in the future,” Prof. Zeev Rotstein, director of the Sheba Medical Center and the project’s architect said in an interview with an Israeli publication.

The 23 doctors already in the program include Prof. Raya Leibowitz-Amit, a specialist in oncology; Dr. Yehuda Kamari, who is researching inflammatory processes in vascular occlusions; and Dr. Gal Markel, who manages a research department for the study of Melanoma and the Clinic for Cancer Research at Sheba.

Among the first of the 23 member group to become a Talpionnaire is Dr. Josef Haik, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon whose specialty is burns. At Sheba Hospital he heads the high-tech Sheba Regional Burns Center.

“Unfortunately our healthcare system in Israel doesn’t give us the sort of support one needs if you are a productive doctor and researcher,” Haik tells ISRAEL21c. “You can’t live or finance your family on the salary, and of course you can’t do research,” he says.

Medical research funnels through to international community

With the $60,000 grant he gets over five years, Haik has accepted a fellowship in Canada, earned a unique MA degree in disaster management, and attended international congresses and meetings, where he’s presented his papers on burn management.

Israeli doctors like Haik, one of two experts in his sub-specialty field here in Israel, deal with complicated burns — ones that are multidimensional and usually due to a terror attack. Making the most of a terrible situation, Haik writes papers on how to treat such wounds, so that other doctors in the world will have the know-how in case of emergency.

With the help of Sheba’s Talpiot Program, Haik has been able to write a number of influential research articles on multi-dimensional burns incurred from terror attacks. He presents his studies regularly to international conferences, and in America.

Haik is also involved in raising public awareness of the severity of burns and is initiating a project at the Israel Center for Medical Simulation to train burn disaster teams in mass casualty situations.

With experience in tissue engineering, total lip reconstruction and terror and burns from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Talpiot Program allows Haik to merge both his passion for medicine with pure scientific research.

So far, “I managed to do quite a bit with it,” admits Haik.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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