Canadian doctors prescribe free national park passes

Doctors ask their patients to walk the paths of the park, feel the crunch of the leaves under their feet and breathe in the fresh air. It’s part of the BC Parks Foundation’s growing PaRX program, which aims to improve people’s mental and physical health by connecting them to nature.

Since the launch of PaRX in November 2020, participating physicians have prescribed countless hours in the sun.

“We have a standard recommendation that you spend at least two hours in nature each week and at least 20 minutes each time to maximize these health benefits,” PaRx director and family physician, the Dr Melissa Lem. “There are almost no conditions that nature is not good for, from diabetes to high blood pressure. ADHD in children, anxiety and depression.”

A recently announced partnership with the Parks Canada Agency will build on this success by allowing physicians to prescribe and provide Parks Canada Discovery Passes to their patients. Free passes give access to 80 sites, including national parks, marine conservation areas and historic sites across Canada.
“We are very fortunate in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces on our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities,” said Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, in a press release. announcing the new initiative. “This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough in how we address mental and physical health issues, and couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to battle the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our everyday life.

“The Fourth Pillar of Health”

Lem grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Toronto where she was usually the only person of color in her school and neighborhood, she says. Often faced with racism and a sense that she “just didn’t belong”, Lem sought solace in nature, whether in her parents’ garden or a nearby park.

After visiting a national park for the first time at the age of 8, Lem realized that she wanted to pursue a profession that would allow her to bring nature into people’s lives.

Decades later, after graduating from medical school and becoming a family doctor, she found a way to combine her passion for nature and healthcare. In 2019, Lem reached out to the BC Parks Foundation and shared his research showing how spending time in nature can improve physical and mental health.

Within a year, she had worked with the foundation to launch the PaRx program.

“There are so many different ways that nature is good for our bodies and our brains, so it’s also a really effective health intervention,” Lem said. “We like to say this should be the fourth pillar of health, along with healthy diet, sleep, and exercise.”

Lem isn’t the only one who believes nature can heal.

Many studies have shown that exposure to nature can counteract depression, lower stress levels, improve blood pressure, and boost creative and cognitive abilities.

A 2017 study by researchers from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that living in or near green spaces can help women live longer and improve their mental health. . Another study, published in 2021, found that city children who are exposed to the forest on a daily basis have better cognitive development and a lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
PaRX is not the first program to act on such findings. Similar programs have been implemented around the world, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“It’s been so rewarding to be a part of this important work and help reduce barriers to accessing nature,” Lem said. “I think we’re on the right track to socialize the idea that nature is the fourth pillar of health and make prescribing nature mainstream.”

“Within six weeks, the depression had eased so much”

Marjorie Schurman says she doesn’t need medical studies to prove nature’s healing power — she’s experienced it firsthand.

In 2020, the Vancouver resident saw a doctor for help for her depression.

“I just said, ‘I can’t get rid of this depression. I feel so much like I can’t get up after playing spider solitaire,'” Schurman told CNN. “He says, ‘I’ve got just what you need, a prescription.’ Oh great, one more pill.”

But instead of a pharmaceutical solution, Schurman’s doctor prescribed her nature time – at least two hours a week, each time a minimum of 20 minutes.

“Within six weeks, the depression had subsided so much…” Schurman said. “We know there’s a science to the impact of being in nature, being with trees, going to hug a tree, you’ll feel better. So I supported him with everything. heart, and I’m an example of how it works.”

The BC Parks Foundation fully supports Schurman’s urge to embrace trees. They hope PaRx will inspire more Canadians to see the value of nature and take climate change seriously.

“If you love something, you want to protect it. They tend to recycle more, they tend to save more electricity and engage more in climate action,” Lem said. “So we like to think with our program that every time someone writes a prescription for nature, we’re doing our little bit for the planet.”

As of February 2022, more than 4,000 licensed healthcare professionals, including nurses, doctors and psychologists, have signed up to the PaRx program. However, due to privacy laws, it is unknown how many nature prescriptions they wrote.

The partnership between the BC Parks Foundation and the Parks Canada Agency will see doctors prescribe 100 free passes to the park in the first year. Passes will be given priority to Canadians living near national sites and to those who doctors believe need them the most, Parks Canada spokeswoman Megan Hope told CNN.

“This partnership initiative will support the health and well-being of Canadians, strengthen their connection to nature and improve accessibility to natural heritage places,” said Hope, adding that the number of passes provided “will be reassessed. over the next few years”.

PaRX has already has changed the way many Canadian healthcare professionals and their patients view nature, Lem said. But the program still has a long way to go.

“When medical schools start teaching nature, prescribing and recommending nature as important as a healthy diet and lifestyle, I’ll know we’re getting there,” she said.

CNN’s Evelio Contreras and Jeff Kopp contributed to this report.


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