Prescribing patients with a dose of nature

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There’s an evidence-based option available to Canadian physicians looking to offer their patients effective treatment: prescriptions to spend time in the great outdoors. That’s thanks to Dr. Melissa Lem and the PaRx program. Dr. Lem shared her passion for the program with a group of VMDAS members recently as part of the Vancouver Acute/Vancouver Community Medical Staff Planetary Health Committee’s speaker series. After hearing from Dr. Lem, members heeded the “Physician: heal thyself” advice and went for a guided walk in Pacific Spirit Forest at UBC.

Dr. Lem outlined the program to participants. She partnered with the BC Parks Foundation to launch PaRx in November 2020. Their standard recommendation is for everyone to spend at least two hours in nature each week and at least 20 minutes each time to maximize the health benefits. Health-care practitioners who register with PaRx receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code, and instructions for how to prescribe and log nature prescriptions. (Studies suggest that written prescriptions are better received than oral advice in motivating patients to make a change.) Patients can also access special offers to reduce their barriers to nature access across Canada.

Prescribing nature also has benefits for planetary health. We look after what we care about, so getting more people out and about in nature means we are growing the legions of people who want to protect our planet.

After Dr. Lem’s talk, participants walked the walk with a two-hour experience in Pacific Spirit Park led by certified forest bathing guides. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, emerged in Japan in the 1980s. It is the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. The walk offered insights into nature immersion practices and the connections between human health and healthy forests.

“It was a magical, uplifting experience,” said Dr. Rashmi Chadha, who chairs the Planetary Health Committee. “The walk allowed us to step outside our individual selves and remember we’re part of a bigger ecosystem. Humans are beautifully enmeshed with nature, yet we’ve forgotten that. This was a marvelous reminder that brought out lots of reflection. The groups didn’t just connect with nature; we connected with our spiritual selves and with one another.”

Attendees who took part in the post-event survey gave it high marks with an overwhelming majority agreeing they would apply content from the session to their work. They commented on the calming effect on being in the forest and were grateful for the opportunity to connect deeply with nature and learn about the health benefits of being outdoors.

Asked about what resonated most, one wrote, “The mindful and immersive approach to forest bathing and being in nature, along with the opportunities to prescribe park passes.” Another commented, “Thank you for organizing this event—it was the highlight on my week.”

Check out these photos from the walk.

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