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At Western University in London, Ontario, Community Engaged Learning (CEL) courses empower students and community partners to solve real-life problems in local areas. But how do you meaningfully engage with a community in the middle of pandemic lockdown?
From 300 km away, and many virtual meetings later, we four Health Sciences students overcame several challenges to develop a local nature prescription program customized for doctors and patients in Penetanguishene, a small town in South Central Ontario. Keep reading to learn how we did it.
In a time of online school, our third-year CEL course in Environmental Health Promotion, which focuses on environmental factors that could potentially harm people’s health, offered a much more enriching learning experience than the average course. Not only did it give us the opportunity to apply theories and concepts outside of the classroom, but we could also tackle a real, health-related issue in our community. We really enjoyed networking with and learning from local organizations and partners—and substituting hours sitting through lectures for one-on-one professor interaction.
When we saw Dr. Adrian Stacy’s call for CEL students to collaborate with him on a local nature prescription program, we were so excited. As a family physician in Penetanguishene, he is passionate about the idea of prescribing nature to patients, and hoped to spread the concept to doctors and other health professionals in his community.
His proposed project really appealed to us because we could use our knowledge about determinants of health to create a health promotion program that would benefit an existing community. Considering the needs of residents of Penetanguishene and Midland, and with an emphasis on inclusivity, we generated different opportunities and resources for health professionals to help their patients live healthier lives. Our overall goals, and the future goals of this program, are to allow local doctors to prescribe nature for their patients, encourage people to spend more time outdoors in nature, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases and mental health conditions.
We started by calling and e-mailing different social navigators and stakeholders to collect resources and deepen our understanding of our target population. We categorized our networking into four groups: community businesses, outdoor recreational parks and trails, health centres, and media.
Funding and incentives are key to motivating patients to spend time outdoors, so we approached community businesses and recreational parks and trails with finding these in mind. But if no one knows about your program, no one will use it. Therefore, when it came to health centres and media, we focused on connecting with interested individuals to promote our initiative. To successfully integrate our program into Penetanguishene, networking with diverse organizations was a must because it allowed us to make adjustments to meet the needs of our target population, discover new opportunities, promote it and form partnerships.
At the end of four months, we designed several deliverables for our Prescription for Nature initiative.
Since this was a new program specific to the Penetanguishene area, we decided to create a new pill-shaped logo that combined both medicine and nature, inspired by the BC Parks Foundation’s PaRx promotional materials.
For patients visiting the office, we created a poster and patient handout. The poster attracts the attention of patients waiting in the reception area, and the patient handout is given to patients when they receive a prescription for nature. This handout contains a brief outline of activities in the surrounding area patients can enjoy. We made sure to include places that were free to visit, accessible, and met the interests of different age groups.
Social media was an important way to promote our project, so we created social media posts and a Linktree, which serves as a centralized location for our resources, as well as additional useful links. We also created a prescription pad, a slide presentation, and a Google Drive folder to offer prescribers access to all our resources.
Our prescription pad outlines the most common chronic conditions and mental disorders found in the area. It also includes space for patient demographics and a QR code linking to the PaRx: A Prescription for Nature program in BC. We included QR codes in all of our deliverables to allow for easy access to our resources.
Lastly, we not only created, but delivered a presentation for prescribers in the Penetanguishene area that gave them a detailed overview of this initiative and directed them to our Google Drive.
Getting involved in a nature prescription initiative was an amazing experience. As university students, we are privileged to gain a wealth of knowledge about various topics, but it is not often that we can apply those facts and theories to the real world before being thrust into a job environment under far more pressure. Over our three years as Health Sciences students, we have learned the significance of how personal and social determinants affect people’s health. Therefore, it was important to us that we personalized our program for the people of Penetanguishene, whose needs may differ from the national context where this project originated, due to specific local factors like age, socio-economic status, ethnicity and culture.
Our time with this project ended in the spring, but there is still more work to be done. Given more time, we would have loved to have created an evaluation to assess the impact of our ParkRx initiative in Penetanguishene six months and one year after the project’s implementation. Anyone launching a local nature prescription program should strongly consider this to gauge weaknesses and strengths in order to maximize project effectiveness.
The most important idea we want students to take away is that even though a project like this requires time and effort, it is 100 per cent possible to execute. Case in point: our own experience, where we were over 300 km away from our target community working for four months in a completely virtual environment.
It can be difficult to visualize an end product when you are not physically present in the place where you want to create change, but we found that connecting to community partners and social navigators, and customizing our approach, helped immensely. We look forward to seeing our nature prescription program make a lasting impact for the people who need it most in the Penetanguishene area.
Check out the Penetanguishene ParkRx drive for more resources from Aagna, Khwahish, Mais and Maryam.