By Ofir Koren and Hillel Newman
Israel and Morocco are currently promoting a declaration on “Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response,” which will hopefully be endorsed at the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting. This declaration is an excellent example of “health diplomacy.”
Health diplomacy is a field that merges international relations with healthcare endeavors, such as public health and medical innovation, with the objective of achieving common healthcare goals through diplomatic channels.
The roots of health diplomacy can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when international agreements were reached in order to combat communicable diseases such as cholera. The establishment of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948 was a major milestone in the development of the field. Over time, health diplomacy has evolved from addressing individual health crises to a broader approach that encompasses preventive measures, capacity building and the strengthening of healthcare systems.
Health and medical challenges transcend borders and nationalities. Thus, there is a growing understanding that health issues must be addressed on a regional if not global level.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the urgency of international cooperation in this field. Faced with unprecedented challenges, nations turned to health diplomacy as an indispensable tool for information exchange, resource allocation and collaborative solutions. A notable example was the international effort to ensure equitable access to vaccines.
The lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic underscore the importance of sustained investment in health diplomacy. The pandemic was a poignant reminder that diplomacy is not only a tool of international relations. It can save lives and shape the future of global health.
Today, Israel is emerging as a global leader in health diplomacy. This is inextricably linked to Israel’s tech industry, of which the health tech sector is an integral part. As documented by Start Up Nation Central, healthcare is currently the largest sector of the Israeli startup ecosystem. It represents 1,600 — around 20% — of all technology companies, over 70 innovation hubs, dozens of R&D centers for multinational corporations and global tech companies, and more than 250 active VCs.
In recent years, Israeli diplomats have cooperated with Israeli and American physicians in the field of health diplomacy in Los Angeles, with extraordinary results. The primary goal of this initiative was to establish partnerships between medical institutions, academic organizations, research centers and biotech institutions in southern California and Israel. These partnerships involved sharing knowledge and best practices, confronting challenges, fostering cooperation that transcends borders and enhancing critical care capabilities.
In the context of this initiative, agreements were signed and understandings reached between medical institutions in Israel and Los Angeles in the fields of R&D, collaborative medical innovation and exchanges of medical teams and students. The institutions involved collaborate on issues like next generation transcatheter heart valves that help make open-heart surgery unnecessary, delivering less-invasive treatments of cardiac and non-cardiac diseases, identifying the causes behind the decrease in female infertility, providing preventive solutions for acute medical challenges and more.
The Israel-Los Angeles health diplomacy initiative will also help address critical disparities in Israeli healthcare services; for example, between medical services in the center of Israel and Israel’s periphery. The periphery suffers from shortages of skilled medical practitioners, advanced equipment, supportive technology and research opportunities. This problem is particularly pronounced in regions outside major urban centers.
As of 2022, the number of physicians in Israel’s periphery was about 10% below the OECD average. Yet the demand for medical care has increased and will continue to do so.
There are several reasons for this. In particular, small and medium-sized hospitals struggle to attract residents and researchers due to limited access to advanced procedures, data-driven research and cutting-edge technology. This perpetuates a cycle in which the most talented physicians seek training and employment in major hospitals, exacerbating the critical care gap.
The Israel-Los Angeles initiative included the use of health diplomacy to address the unmet needs of the Israeli healthcare system. For example, there is the recent partnership between the University of California Irvine (UCI) and Emek Medical Center in northeast Israel. This collaboration stands out not only for the fruitful exchange of students and medical professionals but also its broader implications beyond medicine and academia. It builds ties and thus helps decrease anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
The evolution of health diplomacy reflects the growing interdependence between nations regarding complex healthcare challenges. Israel can be a global leader in this field, benefitting the global community and reaping its own benefits by addressing regional gaps in its healthcare system and working to alleviate antisemitism.
Dr. Ofir Koren is an interventional cardiologist, renowned international researcher and global presenter. Dr. Hillel Newman is a historian and diplomat.