Elaine van Ee, a research fellow in the Mass General Emergency Department, always dreamed of working in emergency medicine – handling unpredictable patient encounters and collaborating with colleagues to provide the best care possible. Three years ago, those aspirations became reality when she became a paramedical assistant at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), a Level I trauma center in the Netherlands.

“LUMC represents the fundamental intersection of education, research and patient care that comprises academic medicine,” van Ee says. “As a paramedical assistant in the ED, I worked on the trauma floor enrolling patients and ambulances, restocking supplies and turning over rooms between patients.”

A hospital bed
One of the images from van Ee’s photo exhibition about health care waste, taken by Alex van der Lecq.

Van Ee continued this work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which amplified her passion for medicine and inspired her to enroll in a dual master’s program in Medicine at Leiden University and in Health Care Management programs at Erasmus University Rotterdam. It was during her studies at LUMC when she learned of a predoctoral research fellowship through an ongoing collaboration between LUMC Trauma Surgery and Harvard Medical School (HMS). Van Ee says it was always her dream to attend HMS and expand her investigation beyond the Dutch health care landscape, and she jumped at the opportunity.

“In working at LUMC and the MGH, I’ve come to understand the importance of balancing my passion for medicine with an understanding of health care systems infrastructure,” van Ee says. “One infrastructure-related issue I’m passionate about is helping emergency departments become more environmentally sustainable.”

Van Ee chose to dedicate her master’s thesis to this topic and is hopeful that hospitals around the world can find a balance between providing high acuity and intensive care while also being mindful of their use of medical supplies and resources.

Through both her research and exchanges with her colleagues, van Ee discovered a general lack of public knowledge on the issue. She says it became clear to her that a simple yet impactful approach to tackling environmental sustainability in health care would be by raising awareness around the magnitude of the industry’s contribution to waste.

Elaine van Ee
Elaine van Ee, a research fellow in the Mass General Emergency Department.

“Because I became aware of this issue by observing waste in emergency departments, I began exploring the idea of raising awareness through visual messages,” van Ee says. “That’s how I came up with the idea to create a photo exhibition.”

In collaboration with an emergency medicine physician in the Netherlands – who also enjoys professional photography – van Ee captured her message in five compelling visuals, each using long exposure, noise reduction and shadowing to resonate with the audience.

“I wanted to plant seeds for conversation,” she says. “Some of the photos were considered controversial, and I was met with pushback from local authorities and officials in the Netherlands. But I feel strongly that until we – health care professionals included – take our contributions to waste and pollution more seriously, we only subject future generations to harm.”

To date, van Ee’s photo exhibition, titled “It’s an Emergency!” has toured three hospital campuses, including LUMC, Red Cross Hospital Beverwijk and Amsterdam University Medical Center at Vrije University. It has also been on display at various conferences and is set to continue its tour at Amsterdam MC, the International Conference on Emergency Medicine in Amsterdam, Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, Medical Spectrum Twente in Enschede, Franciscus Hospital in Roosendaal, Jeroen Bosch Hospital in Den Bosch and Dijklander Hospital in Hoorn.

As van Ee concludes her research fellowship at Mass General, she hopes to supplement public awareness with sustainable actions from transitioning disposables to reusables when appropriate to reducing product packaging. Upon her return to the Netherlands, she hopes to continue her qualitative research through observation of other specialties, increased engagement with hospital leadership and exploring other avenues for ongoing discussions.