Pediatrician fighting for her health care vision

Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel has a mission of serving children from other countries as a bridge to peace.Dr. Orna Blondheim, director of Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel in Petach Tikva, thinks that true cooperation can flourish between …

Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel has a mission of serving children from other countries as a bridge to peace.Dr. Orna Blondheim, director of Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel in Petach Tikva, thinks that true cooperation can flourish between Israel and her neighbors in the field of pediatric medicine. But, for Blondheim, the first woman director of an Israeli hospital, the path towards her goal is accompanied by enormous budgetary problems.

“This system is truly about to fall in. We need help in order to provide the best. It costs a lot of money before any extras, and that is difficult without additional support,” Blondheim said.

Blondheim began her career at the medical school in Jerusalem. She started her studies in specialization at Shaare Zedek Hospital in the city and completed them at the Rothschild Hospital, now Ben-Zion Hospital, in Haifa. After completing her studies, Blondheim worked for three years at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, considered on of the top three pediatric hospitals in the United States. When she returned to Israel, she worked as a senior physician at the Haemek Hospital in Afula until she received an offer to work in management. During the last six years, she worked as deputy director at Haemek. She left this position to become director of SCMCI, which is the only hospital in the Middle East and Europe that specializes in pediatric medicine.

When Blondheim speaks about the hospital, her eyes light up and her smile never disappears. She says her love is medicine, her craving is children, and the combination of both – alongside breaking through the glass ceiling in the world of medicine – provides her with satisfaction and challenge.

Q: Why do you describe SCMCI as a national resource?

A: This is a unique hospital, which was established through acknowledgement that children are children, and not small adults. They have special needs and the entire hospital was designed so that the child will feel as comfortable as possible: There is no hospital atmosphere here, nor is there a smell of a hospital. The surroundings are non-threatening, friendly and relaxed, where the child can play, draw, read and play computer games, and where parents can stay and sleep overnight or make a cup of coffee. In fact, today, as doctors we know
that these things are extremely important to the child’s recovery, and the hospital was built on this basis from the physical structure to the staff. We must remember that when you are talking about children, you cannot only treat the child. It is really family care, because the family must cope with the child’s illness – not a child who has a temperature for three days and gets well – but a child who is ill for a long time with diseases such as diabetes and cancer. This is a tough situation, that requires much thought from the parties involved, like the other children in the family. I would like SCMCI to continue to be a leading center for pediatric care, also from the point of view of research, technological improvements and new procedures.

Q: What are the chances of utilizing the hospital’s international potential or at least its regional potential?

A: This was part of the vision when the hospital was established, and which recently stopped, although we continue to receive children from the Palestinian Authority. The international idea has broader aspects to the surrounding Arab countries and near-European countries such as Cyprus and Turkey. Children continue to arrive from there, but in a small trickle. In the past, we received many children from Turkey, and now families are a little afraid to come. This is because of the security situation, but in truth the real vision was that SCMCI would not only be a national resource, but also an international resource that would serve as a bridge to peace. Medicine is one of the ways to express true co-existence.

Q: What kinds of research does SCMCI concentrate on?

A: Diseases, treatments. We are at the point today of real breakthroughs in several areas, and if I had to choose the most important, I would say genetics. This is an important discipline because, through it, it is possible to prevent many diseases and reduce the suffering of families. Today, we are beginning to understand that the different responses in people, and surely children, to medications and treatments, are dependent upon their genetic structure. But we still do not know how to match treatment to the genetic structure of each child. In fact, the genetic structure is our identity card, and it encompasses both diseases and treatment responses. This can affect the quality of treatment and this is actually at the point of a breakthrough. I am sure that in another ten years there will be a genetic identity card for every child that will allow for a matching of antibiotics, and for more complex treatments.

Q: Do you have a research budget?

A: It is no secret that the health system in general is in crisis. The research budget per individual in Israel is so small that it places us, in some measure, in danger. There are several ways to conduct research. Official support is through the Office of the Chief Scientist. It is possible to receive grants from foundations abroad, but the competition is fierce. Sometimes, companies that are interested in the research will pay for small studies and there are small budgets from universities, but everything is very limited. In fact, I am appealing to the business community in Israel to make contributions and to help us, so that we can continue to maintain and advance the hospital, and provide treatment at the same level to which we have been accustomed. I think that the business community in Israel should do more to assist us. This is something that is accepted throughout the rest of the world.

Q: Why wasn’t there a female director of the hospital before you?

A: There are several reasons. First, about 15 to 20 years ago the number of women attending medical school was very small, about 10 to 15 percent of the student population. Only in recent years has it become 50-50. Not all women have succeeded in coping with working in a hospital, which is very difficult, demanding and exhausting. Some do not even want to deal with this in the first place and say, “Okay, I am a doctor, but I don’t want to work in a hospital.” In addition, the process of professional advancement is done at many junctures in the form of a tender or appointment, and it is necessary to compete against other candidates and before committees. Men sit on all these committees. If a woman with equal capability has to compete against male candidates who were together in the army, the woman’s position is already reduced professionally due to the “old boys club.” This happens in Israel and especially between doctors who, after their studies, serve five to six years in the army. The bottom line is that they are together in the army, participate in military campaigns together and feel a kind of (brotherhood) which is understandable to some degree.

Q: What changed in your case?

A: I think that to some extent, I was lucky to have equal opportunities. There were other candidates, all acceptable, and there was competition. I think that Clalit Health Services management gave me an equal opportunity, without any preconceived opinions. This was an appointment regarding my ability to deal with such a unique hospital and had nothing to do with my being a woman. Since there are more women in the medical professions today, I really hope that more women will remain within the hospital system and combine their careers together with family life. I also hope that my breakthrough is the start for other women. I am convinced that women perform just as well as men, and sometimes, even better.