Health-care professionals in the Maritimes can now formally prescribe time outdoors and national park passes as part of their personal health-care plans thanks to a program that has been growing in popularity across Canada.
The BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx in British Columbia and announced its latest expansion to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island on Friday, marking Earth Day.
The nature prescription program has registered over 5,000 health professionals in five provinces since it started in November 2020.
When the program expanded to Ontario last year, Dalhousie University psychology professor Shannon Johnson said she wanted to find out how she could bring it to Nova Scotia.
"A friend of mine who's a health-care professional sent it to me and thought it'd be right up my alley," said Johnson, who is also a clinical psychologist.
"My research is really focused on the benefits of spending time in nature, as well as trying to understand what the barriers and facilitators are to that health behaviour."
She found out that one of the program's criteria is endorsement from health-care professionals. After securing the endorsement of the Nova Scotia College of Family Physicians, among other organizations, Johnson will be one of the program's first prescribers in the Maritimes.
Nature the 'fourth pillar' of healthy behaviour
While she hasn't yet written a formal nature prescription, Johnson said she's found that patients are generally more likely to follow through with her instructions when she writes them down.
The PaRx program doesn't replace any traditional health-care practices, Johnson said, but it does act as a supplementary tool for practitioners in their patients' overall health-care plans.
"I think a lot of people have thought of being in nature as a recreational activity, which it certainly is, but it's also a health behaviour," she said.
"When we think about the key health behaviours that people encourage, you know, good sleep, good nutrition and exercise … spending time in nature is really that additional fourth pillar."
She added that health-care professionals across the world are starting to realize the importance of adding nature to their list of key health behaviours, especially when treating children.
National parks prescription
In January, PaRx began a partnership with Parks Canada to allow licensed health-care providers to prescribe an adult discovery pass, which allows access to national parks for a year, per month. PaRx asks prescribers to give priority to those who live close to national parks.
That means Dr. Ken Murray will be able to prescribe doses of the nearby Cape Breton Highlands National Park from his family practice in Neils Harbour if he chooses to register.
Murray said he received an email on Thursday which included some introductory information about the PaRx program and he said it looks like an interesting idea, adding that he already prescribes exercise for some patients.
"I think if it included the opportunity to get out and explore our park or other parks, I would say, 'So much the better,'" he said. "People come from far away to see it and explore it. If this sort of opens a door to someone, I think that's good."
He said he still has to evaluate the program in more detail but if he registers, will use it selectively for people who would benefit from it.
Beneficial for planetary health, too
But the program isn't only intended to benefit patients' health, said PaRx student volunteer Emma McDermott — it will also have a positive impact on the environment.
"The research does show that individuals who are more connected with nature are going to be more likely to protect the earth long term. So there is that dual benefit," said McDermott, who is also a third-year medical student at Dalhousie University.
"People that are prescribed nature are then going to tend to recycle more, conserve more electricity and practice more pro-environmental behaviours going forward."
McDermott said the program will soon be available in French and PaRx is on the lookout for local partners in the Maritimes to expand patients' access to the outdoors.
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