Why Israel innovates in healthcare and what the world can learn -opinion

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A hotel for mothers after giving birth. A medic who shows up by motorcycle a crucial number of minutes before an ambulance can navigate the traffic. A pair of crutches that is lent out for free to a patient with a broken leg. These are, for the most part, basic integral experiences in the Israeli health system, but for those looking in from around the world, they are unique and innovative.

And they should be getting more attention, especially as healthcare costs rise globally. Israel often makes headlines and is well-known to investors globally as a hub of innovation in the health-tech sector. But these innovations in the local medical system, which save and improve thousands of lives every day, are not well-known outside the country and are often taken for granted here at home. Like the health-tech sector, which draws billions of dollars in investments each year, these homegrown solutions, often started by nonprofit and other private organizations, are filling in gaps, increasing efficiency and aiming to solve problems in the system.

For years, Israel has lagged behind most of the developed world when it comes to medical spending, availability of hospital beds and the number of doctors and nurses per capita. Of course, the Israeli government should prioritize health more, but it is also worth pointing out that these shortcomings in the public medical system have motivated many life-changing innovations. Perhaps other countries and Jewish communities around the world can learn from these innovations and replicate some of them to fill the gaps in their health systems.

Baby hotels

With a relatively high birthrate and limited public spending on healthcare, Israel’s maternity wards are especially crowded, making it difficult for mothers to recover well. This was part of the inspiration behind baby hotels, where new mothers (as well as their partners in some cases) can stay in comfortable private rooms and have access to nurses, lactation consultants, a nursery and other post-natal services.

These hotels are now available at several hospitals, as well as in other places, where they are run by religious organizations. Israel’s HMOs offer partial reimbursement for stays at some of these facilities, making them more accessible to more women. Many women have said a stay at one of these hotels was essential to their mental and physical health after birth.

Maternity ward Hadassah hospital (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Similar concepts exist in a few other places around the world, including in some Jewish Orthodox communities abroad and in South Korea, where postnatal retreat centers began opening about 15 years ago.

Last year, the first maternity hotel available to the general public opened in New York. To make such options available to more people either via volunteer organizations or by insurers covering some of the fees would be a relatively low-cost way to improve health outcomes for mothers and babies and fill in the gaps in the United States care system that have led to rising rates of maternal mortality and postpartum depression.

Lending organizations

Gemachs, or lending organizations, have long been part of Jewish communities. But when it comes to medical supplies, such organizations have a large impact and serve an essential need. In Israel, thousands of people rely on gemachs for medical equipment that they probably would not have access to, or at least easy and affordable access to, through the public health system. While the health system struggles to meet the population’s needs, a growing number of gemachs have increased their services, filling in gaps in the public system.

One of the oldest gemachs, Yad Sarah, founded as a medical equipment lending organization inside a Jerusalem apartment in 1976, now provides services for more than 1.25 million people in Israel each year, reaching one out of every two families in the country.

Not only do these lending organizations save people money, they can be more efficient and personal than going through the public health system when it comes to medical equipment, from wheelchairs to crutches to hospital beds, and much more.

Replicating this model outside of Israel is a viable way to cut costs and meet the demand for medical equipment. And there is a great need for this; 54% of Medicaid recipients in the US lack the medical equipment and other assistive technology they need.

Community emergency responders

In addition to traditional ambulance services, emergency response organizations in Israel also rely on motorcycles, bicycles and a nationwide network of both professional and trained volunteer medics to respond to calls. This means that a medic with essential equipment often arrives long before an ambulance and can start delivering life-saving care. In fact, this system, used by multiple rescue services, has reduced the average waiting times for a medic to just three minutes from 10 minutes.

Yad Sarah’s emergency alarm center, which responds to phone calls for help, as well as to automatic alerts from patients wearing the organization’s fall-detection sensor, also plays a significant role in making sure crucial help arrives in time to save lives. The emergency center responded to more than 800 falls last year alone.

Like lending organizations and baby hotels, these rescue services have arisen to fill a need in the healthcare system. And they are starting to emerge as a solution in other places, as well. In addition to cutting down response times in urban areas, motorcycle ambulances are helpful in rural areas that lack paved roads.

While investors continue to pour money into Israel’s health-tech start-ups, medical systems and communities around the world should also be paying attention to how quiet local innovation has filled in gaps in the public health system. Often what started out as community volunteer organizations or small ventures to fill in these gaps are now an essential and defining aspect of healthcare in Israel. Somehow the average lifespan in Israel is longer than the average in OECD and people are happier, despite the gaping holes in the public health system. I can’t help but think there is a connection to these maternity hotels, volunteer medics, medical gemachs and many other services.

Now, we should be making more efforts to help replicate these models around the world.

The writer is a member of Yad Sarah’s International Board of Overseers, as well as a board member of Friends of Yad Sarah, established by his late mother. 


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