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Growing up, and living and working in Toronto, cardiologist Dr. Sherryn Rambihar always felt more comfortable in the city. But with lockdown measures isolating them from family and friends, she and her family suddenly found themselves connecting to nature. Travelling beyond their neighbourhood in Midtown Toronto, they explored Ontario’s provincial parks for the first time, camping, bird-watching and stargazing.
“The more distance I had from hospital walls, the more I felt I could breathe freely,” says Rambihar. “Nature helps me adapt to the uncertainty I face in work and life, and grounds me in what’s real and important. I truly believe my children will remember this pandemic time as exhilarating and memorable because of the time we’ve spent out in nature.”
Rambihar’s new appreciation for nature’s positive effects on her wellbeing is part of a movement that was growing even before the pandemic. Nature prescriptions were named one of the top eight global wellness trends in 2019, and are being implemented around the world. The UK and other countries are now investing in park prescription pilots to help address mental and physical health problems and the resulting strain on their health care systems and economies.
In November 2020 the BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx, Canada’s first national nature prescription program, starting in British Columbia. Winning a prestigious Joule Innovation prize from the Canadian Medical Association, it has garnered widespread enthusiasm, with almost 500 prescribers now registered.
Today PaRx officially launches in Ontario. With support from major health partners like the Ontario College of Family Physicians, Nurse Practitioners’ Association of Ontario and Association of Family Health Teams of Ontario, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals will be able to start prescribing doses of nature to their patients.
“It makes me incredibly happy to launch PaRx in Ontario where my nature prescription journey began,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician and Director of PaRx. She prescribed nature for the first time to a University of Toronto student battling Attention Deficit Disorder over a decade ago, and since then has become an advocate for the nature-health connection, championing it in her practice, at medical conferences and guided tours in parks.
“There's a strong and growing body of research on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression and anxiety,” states Dr. Lem, who believes governments should designate parks an essential part of the health care system.
“Family doctors need many tools to manage different medical conditions, and nature prescriptions are a powerful treatment option,” offers Dr. Alykhan Abdulla, Chair of the Section of General and Family Practice of the Ontario Medical Association. “That’s why we endorse PaRx.”
Any licensed health-care professional can prescribe PaRx. They will receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code and instructions for how to prescribe and log prescriptions. Featuring practical, evidence-based online resources like quick prescribing tips and printable fact sheets, as well as an achievable green-time target of “2 hours per week, 20+ minutes each time,” PaRx aims to make nature prescriptions easy and effective for both prescribers and patients.
PaRx is already establishing roots within Ontario. Dr. Meghan Davis, who leads the Sustainability Initiative for the Hamilton Family Health Team, has been busy integrating nature prescriptions into the work done by her colleagues across the region. “PaRx is a great example of the synergy between our goals of providing quality health care and mitigating climate change. Not only does time in nature improve health in so many ways, but research shows it also leads to more pro-environmental behaviour,” says Dr. Davis. “We’re enthusiastically rolling PaRx out to our team of over 160 physicians and 300 other health professionals.”
Meanwhile, in Marathon, Dr. Sarah Newbery, Assistant Dean at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, is eager to help PaRx spread within Northern Ontario. “Here at the Marathon Family Health Team we’ve had a focus on health promotion that has long included exercise prescriptions, and in our rural community we often assume exercise happens outside,” offers Dr. Newbery. “Through PaRx we can be much more intentional about reinforcing the benefits of nature time. Our local provincial parks are remarkable assets to our health and undervalued benefits to all of us who live in Northern Ontario.”
As COVID-19 rates remain at worrisome levels across the country, it is a crucial time for health-care professionals to promote the mental and physical health benefits of heading outdoors—for both their patients’ and their own health. The BC Parks Foundation is offering free guided remote nature therapy sessions to prescribers to support their own wellbeing. “Out of gratitude for the extraordinary care healthcare workers have been giving Canadians, we are offering them a rejuvenating chance to connect with nature in a deep, consistent and meaningful way,” says Andy Day, CEO of the BC Parks Foundation.
The BC Parks Foundation invites other partners, governments and funders to engage and collaborate with PaRx as it rolls out in Ontario and across Canada.
The BC Parks Foundation inspires British Columbians and our friends around the world to enhance parks through a spirit of gratitude and well-being. For more info visit bcparksfoundation.ca