I first visited Israel in 1986, working with local surgeons on techniques to avoid using external colostomy bags, thereby improving the quality of life for patients, particularly young adults. The health-care system in Israel at that time was good, but it lacked some modern techniques and infrastructure. Since then, over a mere 30 years, this picture has changed radically.
Today, because of clear planning, vision and leadership, Israel has one of the most efficient and effective health-care systems in the world. It operates at a fraction of Canada’s health costs. Most notably, Israel uses electronic communication to fully integrate primary and hospital care in a type of coherent medical model that has eluded many Western countries.
The medical advances in Israel have been extended globally, with benefits shared with friendly countries and even with so-called “enemies.” (I say so-called “enemies” because for a doctor, a patient is a patient, whatever the nationality.)
Two examples stand out. After the terrible Haiti earthquake in 2010, the emergency mobile health unit sent from Israel was by far the most effective trauma care unit to assist ordinary Haitians. Today, on its northwestern border, Israel offers remarkable humanitarian medical care for Syrian victims in that country’s awful civil war.
In public health, Israeli innovators are using nanotechnology to recycle sewage and desalinate seawater. From a health-care viewpoint, this is very significant because the most common cause of death among children in developing countries is diarrhea, due to unclean water. Millions of children’s lives can be saved when this Israeli technology is exported to those countries that need it.
There is an ethical vision behind this medical work. My understanding is that there exists a universal government obligation to protect all citizens from harm, through effective health-care delivery, as well as from external threats to their safety and security. To fail at one or the other will have grave consequences.
This reflects a core value regarding the sanctity of life. As a physician, I am appalled by the harm caused by factors that humans can control, such as the absence of peace and security, or the absence of good health care. Political boundaries do not reduce this human value. A life is equally valuable wherever that person happens to live.
Sadly, there are so many places in our world where mental and physical devastation is rampant. Seen from my medical standpoint, this harm is so pointless. Diseases cause enough damage to people. The added injuries caused by warfare is an affront to humanity.
As a physician and a health-care administrator, my belief is that seeking peace with powerful enemies is a necessary part of protecting the health of people on all sides of a conflict, and is worthy of our support.
Yet, I worry that my admiration for what Israel has achieved in health care and public health protection will be condemned by some people. Some critics will politicize anything said about Israel, even a discussion about its health services. While I am not an expert in international relations policy, I do know a good deal about health care. Israel’s efforts in medicine and in trying to pursue peace and security are so important for ordinary people in that country, and in the international “neighbourhood.”
On a recent visit to Israel with leaders and CEOs of Canadian and American hospitals, I toured five exceptional Academic Health Science Centres, and several extraordinary trauma centres. This eye-opening visit left me with two questions: Israel has been in existence for only 70 years, but how did it manage in such a short time to create one of the best health-care systems in the world? Second, how might we in Canada learn from Israel and adopt some incredible innovations?
It is customary on birthdays to extend wishes for good health, prosperity and peace. On Israel’s 70th birthday, I am very pleased to wish all Israeli citizens, whether Jews or Muslims, secularists or Christians, all the health, peace and security they desire. And I hope that the residents of nearby countries torn by terrible conflicts, whether in Iraq, Syria, Sudan or others, all the security and peace they desire. This is my wish as a physician.
Hartley Stern is chair of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.