Have fun outside—doctor's orders. park rx washington d.c. outside online prescription

Have fun outside—doctor's orders.     Photo: Nagesh Jayaraman/Flickr

Doctors Prescribing Time Outside

Fill prescriptions for nature

Washington, DC-based pediatrician Robert Zarr is lending new meaning to "giving someone her walking papers."

In 2011, the National Park Service conceptualized Healthy Parks Healthy People, an initiative to increase park visitation and good health. Zarr, a nature lover who had been reading about the theory of nature deficit disorder, took the NPS's idea and ran with it.

In July 2013, Zarr became the foremost advocate of the program when he launched Park Rx, an NPS-helmed medical program through which doctors "prescribe" patients nature at Unity Health Care. That means prescribing time outside—and not just in any outdoor place, but in places patients are most likely to follow through on those prescriptions.

The American Heart Association recently estimated that 12 percent of Americans don't take prescribed medications, and the American Academy of Family Physicians found that one in three patients don't even take the step of filling their prescriptions. To get his young patients moving, Zarr worked with a host of organizations, including the NPS, to map and rate 380 DC parks based on things like available activities, cleanliness, and accessibility to transit. 

When Zarr and his colleagues prescribe nature, they match patients to the parks nearest them that offer certain activities. Zarr then prints out a prescription page with the park's information and a map. 

Making follow-through as easy as possible has worked, Zarr told Fast Company. Unity Health Care doctors have issued 550 prescriptions and saw an average increase of 22 minutes of activity per week in 400 patients.

Zarr believes the digital age will help keep patients accountable and give them incentive to manage their health. He's in the process of developing a Park Rx mobile app that could regularly remind patients to get outside and keep their doctors abreast of their activities. 

Prescribing nature might seem a bit wonky, but Zarr isn't the first to try progressive outdoor treatments. This past March, the City of Boston and Boston Medical Center began prescribing cycling to get lower-income patients moving on more affordable transportation. A few months earlier, Massachusetts General Hospital for Children launched Outdoors Rx, a program through which doctors tell patients to join hiking trips and even plan their own outings. Successful patients earn rewards toward fun outdoor gear and trips.