Exploring a holistic approach to wellbeing

Medical student advocates nature as treatment

Photo provided by Angie Woodbury

Angie Woodbury, a student in the Max Rady college of medicine, is part of Parks Prescriptions, or PaRx, a project prescribing time in nature as a medical treatment. PaRx started as an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation and is led by Melissa Lem, a clinical assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine.

After successfully launching in Ontario and Saskatchewan, the project has now fully launched in Manitoba.

“So that means that Manitobans can go to any of their care providers who have signed up to prescribe — that’s things like nurses, physicians, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, nurse practitioners and psychologists,” Woodbury said.

Registered providers can generate a prescription code that can be used on the PaRx website to help patients keep track of their hours in nature. PaRx iscurrently developing a mobile phone application that patients can use to log their time and activities in nature.

The PaRx website touts the healing factors associated with time spent in nature as backed by several decades of research and hundreds of studies.

“We see health benefits in all sorts of different spheres,” Woodbury said.

“In cardiac health, in stress and anxiety, in pain, energy and mood, things like that. We know that spending two hours […] in nature reduces your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

The website compiles several studies that claim two hours in nature per week, in sessions at least 20 minutes long, may improve mental wellbeing among cancer patients and even activate cancer-fighting cells. Moreover, PaRx says spending time in nature can increase memory, creativity and work satisfaction.

Woodbury completed a bachelor of science degree at the University of Manitoba with a specialization in environmental and integrative physiology before being admitted to medical school. Environmental physiology is the process of understanding how individual organisms function in relation to their environment. Woodbury’s interest in a holistic approach to medicine led to the PaRx adoption in Manitoba.

Woodbury is part of a student advocacy group called the health and environment adaptive response task force, or H.E.A.R.T., part of the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. The group advocates for the integration of planetary health into medical school curricula and was instrumental in implanting the program in Manitoba. The group argues for a holistic approach to recognizing and creating wellness that includes recognizing the effects of climate change.

Woodbury was responsible for connecting PaRx with local health organizations in Manitoba and seeking their endorsement of the program. Woodbury met with Doctors Manitoba about possibly developing a workshop to train prescribers in using the online platform. In her role, Woodbury also reached out to local nature organizations to ensure access and support for patients.

Woodbury says PaRx’s evidence-based approach ensures organizations can trust the program enough to lend their support.

“It’s easy enough for people to make claims about things,” Woodbury said.

“We’re really cautious about what we say. Everything on our website is linked to research articles, every fact or statement that we make is backed by evidence.”

Nature prescribing is situated within a broader “social prescribing” movement to prescribe lifestyle changes rather than just medication in the field of medicine. For example, Alberta has an exercise prescription program called Prescription to Get Active. Other jurisdictions support social prescriptions, including participation in community activities.

Woodbury embraces taking a holistic approach to medicine.

“A lot of people are under the assumption [that] […] you’re healthy if you take your medications and exercise, or go to the doctor,” Woodbury said.

“But [roughly] 80 per cent of your health has to do more with social determinants of health, the built environment that you live in — your level of income, whether you’re able to afford medications or healthy foods.

“Social prescribing is trying to address those other things that impact your health.”