Patients may soon be prescribed a walk in the great outdoors on the NHS.
In a bid to reduce pressure on the health service, environment secretary George Eustice has said GPs and other medics in the UK will be able to hand out “green prescriptions” over pills from autumn.
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Under the £4m ($5m) scheme, doctors can encourage people to take up gardening, cycling or even planting trees in their local area.
Vulnerable individuals, like care home residents, may even be sent on coach trips to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Officials hope the scheme will boost Briton’s mental health, while tackling obesity and even helping coronavirus survivors to recover.
In an online speech to the Green Alliance, Eustice said people can benefit both physically and mentally from spending time in the great outdoors, with the plan also easing the burden on the NHS.
Green prescriptions have been in place in New Zealand since 1998, where four in five GPs have issued the “alternative medicine” to patients.
In New Zealand, patients are given a support worker who encourages them to be more active via phone calls, face-to-face meetings or support groups. Progress is then reported back to the GP.
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One survey found 72% of patients noticed positive changes to their health, 67% started eating better, and more than half felt stronger and fitter.
Green prescription-style pilots have been tried in Dartmoor, Exmoor and Liverpool. In Weymouth and Portland, GPs are encouraged to prescribe walks, gardening and sailing.
Dr Saul Marmot, a GP in east London, told The Times: “I’m a big fan of antidepressants. I’m a big fan of talking therapies.
“The fact [that] social prescribing is important to me does not mean it is exclusive of the others.”
In the speech, Eustice pledged to use nature to help reboot the economy, which has been devastated by the coronavirus outbreak.
“The impacts of this pandemic will be felt deeply for many years, but the experience has also led people to appreciate the difference that nature makes to our lives in a new way,” he said.
“Studies across the spectrum, from health to financial risk, remind us it is in our best interests to look after nature.
“We know that a connection with nature contributes to wellbeing and improved mental health.
“So starting this autumn, we’ll be investing a further £4m in a two-year pilot to bring green prescribing to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus and then we want to scale that project up.”
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Eustice also set out government plans to improve the environment after Brexit, warning European Union legislation had a somewhat negative effect.
“Now EU environmental law always has good intentions but there are also negative consequences to attempting to legislate for these matters at a supranational level,” he said.
“It tends to lead to a culture of perpetual legal jeopardy where national governments can become reluctant to try new things or make new commitments for fear of irreversible and unpredictable legal risks.
“This in turn creates a culture where there are frankly too many lawyers and not enough scientists and too many reports but not enough action.
“So, as we chart a new course for our approach to protecting the environment, we can retain the features that worked and change the features that didn’t.”