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Prescription: One park please

Canadian doctors can now prescribe National Park passes to patients!

By Thomas Bywater

Thomas Bywater is a writer and digital producer for Herald Travel

Natural health: Canadian doctors have begun evidence-based prescriptions to national parks. Photo / John Lee, Unsplash

A dose of fresh air and a trip into nature could be just what the doctor ordered.

As of this month, Canadian medical practitioners can prescribe national park passes to patients. After a three-year programme the 'grassroots movement' has been adopted by health workers across Alberta, BC, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The PaRx campaign has been working with National Parks Canada since 2019 to trial the novel medicine. From an initial trial distributing a batch of 100 passes, it is now on track to be adopted nation wide.

"The Park Prescriptions program comes at a time when we are being invited to reflect deeply on our relationship with the world around us," said Drs Liana Hwang and Andrea Hull.

The practitioners with the Alberta Medical Association were among the first to endorse the evidence-based programme aimed at making it easier for doctors to prescribe time in nature.

The biggest challenge has been trying to get practitioners and patients comfortable with prescribing nature for health.

While everyone can benefit from time outdoors, there's no blanket cure.

From deep immersion on a wilderness hike to a daily dose of watching the birds in your local public garden, whatever form it might take, the regular doses of outdoor recreation have proven to be most effective. The work with Parks Canada has helped inform the programme.

Currently access to many of the national parks in Canada is by permit.

An annual pass costs $85 for access to the country's 80 national parks and reserves. Banff National Park, the oldest and best known wilderness area, costs an adult $12.50 for a one-off National Park Pass. A prescription gives patients direction and removes potential barriers.

"Visiting a park once is great," said PaRx director and general practitioner, Melissa Lem. "But it doesn't in a very meaningful way reduce the barrier to nature access."

The movement in Canada took inspiration from studies in the US and UK, Lem told the Washington Post, however its one of the first countries advocating for park visits as medical practice.

Even before the Covid 19 there had been health studies into the benefit of green areas, however the pandemic has given greater prominence to this research.

The PaRx was singled out by the World Health Organisation as a model for other health services.

"A growing body of research suggests that spending time in nature has a wide range of positive effects on human health, from reduced chronic disease to improved mental health, immune function, and birth outcomes," the WHO said in a statement during the COP26 climate summit.

At the national climate summit, last November, the WHO welcomed a more joined-up approach to the study of nature spaces and medicine. While 'climate change' was a symptom of our disconnect from the natural world, many health conditions were also worsened by a poor relation to the outdoors.

In 2013 DoC commissioned a study in to the assumptions that health and nature were closely related. "Despite a long-held popular belief that nature is 'healthy' for people, exactly how or even whether this is true has only recently been subject to scientific scrutiny," said Paul Blaschke.

It recommended that the country's wealth of natural spaces be better understood by the New Zealand health sector, particularly in the fields of mental health and physical wellbeing.

PaRx is on target to be adopted by all 13 Canadian provinces and territories by the end of the year.

With provincial Health Authorities funding trips outdoors, PaRx says they are not only helping care for patients but also a healthier planet.

This article has been sourced from NZ Herald



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