Waiting for wilderness: Nature prescription program sees overwhelming demand

·3 min read
Lindsay Sill says she first spoke to her doctor about a PaRx prescription two months ago. She's still waiting for the pass to arrive.   (Submitted by Lindsay Sill - image credit)
Lindsay Sill says she first spoke to her doctor about a PaRx prescription two months ago. She's still waiting for the pass to arrive. (Submitted by Lindsay Sill - image credit)

Lindsay Sill says her 11-year-old son Zachary loves getting into the great outdoors. A family hike on the trails around their home in Kelowna, B.C., is the perfect way for him to expend up to 10 kilometres' worth of pent-up energy.

So, when Sill heard about a program offering nature prescriptions to Parks Canada sites she spoke to her doctor about getting one for her son, who's been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Despite being eligible for a pass because of her son's diagnosis, Sill says getting one isn't a walk in the park. She was surprised by the amount of paperwork required to register, and is confused by the time it's taken to obtain the pass.

"It's ironic because I believed the program was put in place to make it easier to [explore nature]," Sill told CBC's Daybreak South.

Sill, who first saw her family doctor two months ago about the prescription, said on Thursday she's still waiting for the pass to arrive in the mail.

PaRx is a program that offers patients free Parks Canada passes for year-round admission to 80 different national parks, marine conservation areas and historic sites across the country, excluding parking and camping fees. The regular cost for an adult pass would be $72.

The B.C. Parks Foundation, which started the program in late 2020, says delays are due to an "unexpected deluge" of registration requests, with over 5,000 new prescribers the last few months, compared with only 1,000 prescribers its first year. Until recently, PaRx had only one staff member working to verify the registrations.

Submitted by Lindsay Sill
Submitted by Lindsay Sill

On Jan. 31, Parks Canada announced its support for PaRx, which the foundation said vastly increased demand for the service. The program aims to help health-care professionals develop a "nature prescription" for access to federal sites in all provinces except Quebec and Newfoundland to encourage patients to spend time outdoors as a way to manage anxiety and improve mental and physical health.

Citing a growing body of research on the benefits of time in nature, the program suggests spending about two hours a week in the wilderness, for at least 20 minutes at a time.

Sill says ADHD medication is expensive, and because she doesn't have medical benefits through work to help cover costs, she's opted for natural treatment.

"We have to make sure that we get outside, otherwise we just fight." she said. "Luckily for us, he really enjoys being outdoors."

Wait times now two to four weeks, says doctor

PaRx director Dr. Melissa Lem says she's thrilled the program is doing so well, but she and her small team "simply weren't able to handle the massive demand" this year.

"[Each online registration] needs to be verified, registered, and contacted," Lem explained, noting more staff have recently been hired.

"Thankfully the wait time from applying to being registered is down to about two to four weeks depending on the region," she said.

Lem also said the delays are likely due to the many family doctors, therapists, and others who have busy schedules and may take longer to complete their registration forms.

To date, PaRx says it has mailed out hundreds of Parks Canada passes, prioritizing patients who live near Parks Canada-administered sites, and those who have significant financial barriers.

Doctors can only prescribe one pass per month

Lem noted that because the program is new, some health-care professionals are still learning and "may not fully ... convey accurate information to patients."

For Sill, being the "guinea pig" patient for her doctor was a bit confusing, as her doctor seemed unsure whether the prescriptions would need to be updated monthly or yearly.

Lem said the passes are valid for an entire year, but prescribers are only able to prescribe one pass per month to manage demand, so patients may have to wait their turn.

She said patients are also emailed a monthly survey for details on how they've used the pass, as part of PaRx's agreement to collect data.

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