Prescribing nature makes sense for people, business & our NHS

Dom Higgins, head of health and education at The Wildlife Trusts explains some of the benefits of green prescribing

Nature can transform people’s lives. Better still, it can help to reduce pressures on our NHS and benefit our economy. Our recent report, A Natural Health Service: Improving Lives and Saving Money, proves that investing in green prescribing – providing nature-based activities for people to improve their health – is not just the right thing to do for individuals, but it is also financially prudent for the public and private sectors. We need governments, local authorities, and businesses to get behind a new wave of community-based health programmes – and green prescribing is the right place to start.

The power of nature
Green prescribing is an evidence-based pillar of social prescribing that harnesses the power of nature to improve physical and mental health. It sees doctors, other healthcare providers and community groups prescribe nature-based programmes to help people overcome all kinds of health issues. This includes helping those struggling with mental and physical health as well as other challenges like loneliness, physical inactivity, and lack of contact with nature. The public are crying out for greener, healthier, and more natural neighbourhoods but still one in three people do not have easy access to nature near their home. To tackle this, we need to make towns and cities cleaner and greener, contributing towards the bigger goal of protecting at least 30 per cent of the country for nature by 2030. We must also provide opportunities for people to spend quality time doing positive things in nature, improving health, learning new skills, meeting others, and fostering deeper connections with the natural world – green prescribing does all these things and more.

Many illnesses and ailments are preventable – for example social isolation and loneliness can lead to depression, while physical inactivity can cause musculoskeletal problems. Green prescribing can stop certain health conditions from getting worse, as well as helping people to recover from more serious conditions. Activities are as varied as the people joining the courses. They range from gardening to woodwork to wildlife conservation, though it can also be as simple as meeting up with others to enjoy a walk in the park. It is not just individuals that benefit from doing these kinds of things – the knock-on effects help our entire society.

Our report, carried out by environmental consultancy, Ricardo plc, analysed the success of five Wildlife Trust programmes that use nature-based activities to improve people’s health. The findings provide compelling evidence that getting involved in nature projects effectively improves people’s health and happiness, which in turn reduces strain on healthcare providers – saving the NHS both time and money.
The headline figure suggests if these kinds of programmes were offered to everyone likely to take them up – estimated at 1.2 million people – it could result in annual cost savings for the NHS of more than £635 million. By improving individual health and addressing the root causes of health issues, green prescribing leads to an overall decrease in healthcare needs and associated costs.
There are plenty of commentators talking about the long-term survival of the NHS. Nature can provide some of the answers to these challenges by shouldering the burden on mainstream services. To have the biggest impact, we need to integrate these kinds of programmes into health and social care services right across the country. We know green prescribing works and our report underlines how it makes economic, social, and environmental sense to scale up programmes now, not decades into the future. Of course, that requires initial investment, but the returns in terms of social and health benefits are far greater – making green prescribing excellent value for money.

Unexpected benefits
Green prescribing is good for business as it helps people gain experience, confidence, and employability skills, paving the way for a healthier, more productive, and more employable workforce. Programmes often give people the impetus to explore new business ideas or different avenues for employment.
Gwent Wildlife Trust’s Wild Health programme was one of those studied in the report. Participants get to try outdoor activities like coppicing, hedge laying, and tree planting. Some of those taking part become tremendously motivated by the work and go on to seek jobs or further opportunities in related areas. This ripple effect positively impacts local economies while improving community spaces. It’s win-win-win for health, community, and business. Beyond that, it’s a huge boost for nature. We need to create wilder and healthier natural places and, to do that, we need an army of people with skills, knowledge, and passion to get the work done. Nature’s recovery won’t happen overnight but empowering people to take charge of projects in their communities or embark on nature-based careers will make things happen more quickly, at a time when nature needs us most.

Health inequalities
Green prescribing also has the potential to help reduce health inequalities. Social determinants, such as education, disability status, employment status, income levels and ethnicity, play a significant role in shaping an individual’s overall health and wellbeing. Research shows that actively engaging in nature benefits more vulnerable groups. Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Feed the birds project sees dedicated volunteers visit someone in their home who has been referred by their GP or social prescriber. The volunteers help them feed birds and understand more about nature in their garden, yard, or local area. It’s also just a chance to enjoy some company and conversation.
The home visits are incredibly valuable for people who struggle with limited mobility or other health challenges, while enabling them to maintain a sense of independence. Findings show the visits positively influence the overall health and wellbeing of individuals and, where appropriate, increase people’s receptiveness to receiving more formal care services. Volunteers can also guide people to other sources of help and support that they may not have been aware of before. This programme, like many green prescribing initiatives, shows how nature can become the conduit for strengthening bonds in communities.
People need to be at the heart of nature’s recovery. The more time people spend outside enjoying and learning about nature, the more likely they are to help protect and restore it. The impact that has on societal health is enormous. Our report found that green prescribing can save more in healthcare costs than the cost of running the green prescribing scheme. It’s clear that investing in this work is worth every single penny.

The report can be found here.