Dr. Ann-Christine Duhaime has devoted decades to repairing childrens’ brains, doing everything from removing troubling tumors to treating the causes of epileptic seizures.
These days, however, Duhaime, a prominent pediatric neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, is focused on a different aspect of young minds.
An avid nature lover who wants to help the next generation save the environment, Duhaime this year launched a campaign to create a consolidated pediatric facility at Mass. General that would expand the definition of a “green” hospital. Duhaime said this place would strive to be an innovator in eco-conscious practices but also become a place to motivate children to protect and appreciate the power of nature.
Citing studies showing children feel less anxiety when viewing greenery, for example, she imagines a facility where children’s hospital rooms look out on a spacious atrium filled with trees and plants.
“I have this vision of a forest inside the hospital,” said Duhaime in an interview in her office at Mass. General.
She is a scientist, too, and insists that strong data, not marketing allure, back up her ideas. She has recruited researchers to explore new food labeling that would nudge children – through positive messages, not just negative calorie-focused numbers — to make healthier choices. She’s also exploring structural innovations beyond solar panels and energy-efficient windows, such as ultra-smooth countertops where bacteria cannot stick and thrive, thereby enabling the hospital to use fewer cleaning chemicals.
Top Mass. General officials are taking her idea seriously: They have authorized her to spend one day a week devoted exclusively to developing her idea for the “green” pediatric facility, encouraged the hospital’s design staff to work with her, and provided funds for a two-day retreat this fall that includes some of the hospital’s leading administrators and doctors.
“The notion is creating a different type of environment for children,” said John Messervy, corporate director of design and construction at Partners HealthCare, who is helping Duhaime. “The inclusion of nature in health care settings is very positive.”
Duhaime’s timing might be fortuitous, coming at a time when Mass. General is striving to be more competitive in the world of pediatrics.
Though Mass. General has a singular reputation as a research institution and general hospital, its pediatric programs, staffed by more than 300 physicians in about 50 specialties, has long been overshadowed by Boston Children’s, and without change, could become only more so.
Boston Children’s this past week received final state approval for a $1 billion expansion that would bring its capacity to nearly 500 beds. This is roughly five times the number of pediatric beds at Mass. General and Tufts Medical Center’s Floating Hospital for Children, which each have about 100.
Over the decades, Mass. General also has not had the convenience of a unified location for its pediatric specialty services, which are distributed among the adult programs on the main Boston campus.
Sandra Dodge McGee, executive director of MassGeneral Hospital for Children, which administers its pediatric services, said Duhaime’s proposal remains in the “hypothetical phase,” its viability not yet proven, though she is eager to see what unfolds.
“It’s great that she’s been given this opportunity,” McGee said.
Stuart Altman, a Brandeis professor of national health policy who also serves on a state commission that examines health care costs, said he had not yet heard of Duhaime’s proposal, but he supports efforts to promote robust competition among Boston’s pediatric hospitals “to keep spending in line.” Data show that Mass. General and Tufts’ Floating routinely charge considerably less for pediatric services compared with Boston Children’s.
Duhaime, known for an intense can-do approach, insists that her motivation for this project is more aspirational than practical. She believes pediatric hospitals can, and should, play an important role in addressing the environmental crisis.
“I feel bereft when I see nature destroyed,” said Duhaime, whose proposal includes working with other green building initiatives across the country.
After enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, she considered becoming a psychiatrist, but realized she liked the immediate results possible from surgery. But after three decades in the field, she returned to her interest in psychology, obtaining a Radcliffe fellowship last year to study, among other things, why humans appear cognitively hard-wired to over-consume and how this impacts the world.
She concluded that people don’t change behavior by committing to being “good” to the Earth but will if their innate “reward system” is activated. She said it’s the reason why consumers who get a discount for using re-usable grocery bags often continue to do so.
These concepts, she said, are informing her early ideas about how to shape a new pediatric hospital dedicated to top-quality care and energy efficiency, while shaping the next generation’s attitude toward nature. She said she was heartened to see so many families praise the sacred peacefulness of Boston Children’s beloved Prouty Garden, as part of their effort to prevent its demolition in that hospital’s proposed expansion.
Duhaime said her idea of abundant indoor greenery, however, must be tested, especially to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t produce unwanted problems, such as allergic reactions, and actually can be proven to produce positive therapeutic benefits for children.
“It’s expensive to take up space for a garden,” she said. “But how much does it matter? We will study it.”