Canadian physicians are prescribing a new treatment for improving patients’ mental and physical health: the outdoors. A collaboration between Parks Canada and PaRx, a national nature prescription program, allows registered physicians to prescribe patients with an annual Parks Canada discovery pass for free.
“We are very lucky in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces at our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities. Medical research now clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature,” said Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, in a press release. “This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges, and couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”
The PaRx program was first launched by the B.C. Parks Foundation in November 2020. Throughout 2021, the program expanded to Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Physicians, nurses, and other licensed health care professionals in those four provinces, who are registered with PaRx, can now start prescribing Discovery Passes to patients.
The initiative looks to combat an increase in mental and physical health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Statistics Canada survey found that between 2020 and 2021, symptoms of depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder jumped by four per cent among Canadians aged 18 and older.
“I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2022 than being able to give the gift of nature to my patients,” said Melissa Lem, a family physician in B.C. and the director of PaRx, in a press release. “There’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety, and I’m excited to see those benefits increase through this new collaboration.”
An annual Discovery Pass for adults (which costs around $72) provides access to 80 locations across the country, including national parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas, covering more than 450,000 square kilometres of land and water.
“Research shows that children and adults who are more connected to nature are not only more likely to work to conserve it, but also engage in other pro-environmental behaviours,” said Lem. “I like to think that every time one of my colleagues writes a nature prescription, we’re making the planet healthier, too.”
When prescribing the passes, PaRx is asking physicians to prioritize patients who live close to the sites and will get the most use out of the pass, as well as those who may find the price of a pass a barrier to accessing nature, said Prama Rahman, a spokesperson for the B.C. Parks Foundation.
With 1,000 physicians currently registered, PaRx plans to expand to all Canadian provinces and territories by the end of 2022.