Doctors in Shetland will be prescribing nature to their patients

The NHS and RSPB have joined forces for the “Nature Prescriptions” project.

Walking on the beach in Shetland. © Karen MacKelvie

Following on from a successful pilot at Scalloway GP surgery, on the largest island of Shetland, NHS Shetland and RSPB Scotland are rolling out their “Nature Prescriptions” project.

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All of Shetland’s ten GP surgeries will now be able to prescribe nature to their patients, in conjunction with other treatments, which acknowledges that time spent in nature can help to reduce blood pressure and anxiety, and to increase happiness.

“The project provides a structured way for patients to access nature as part of a non-drug approach to health problems,” says Dr Chloe Evans, a GP at Scalloway Health Centre.

“The benefits to patients are that it is free, easily accessible, allows increased connection with surroundings which hopefully leads to improved physical and mental health for individuals”.

Watching the gannet colony at Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland. © Ian Francis
Watching the gannet colony at Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland. © Ian Francis

As part of the partnership, RSPB Scotland has created a calendar of seasonal activities which draws on the knowledge of local people.

“Shetland is “stappit foo” of natural wonders,” says Karen MacKelvie, a RSPB community engagement officer. “Whenever you open your front door you can hear or see some kind of natural delight – be it a gull or a lapwing calling or the roll of a heathery hill.”

“However, despite many doctors using the outdoors as a resource to combat ill-health, far fewer recommend the same strategy to their patients. So, we saw an opportunity to design a leaflet that helps doctors describe the health benefits of nature and provides plenty of local ideas to help doctors fire-up their patients’ imaginations and get them outdoors.”

Watching the waves. © Karen MacKelvie
Watching the waves. © Karen MacKelvie

A range of studies have shown that people with a stronger connection to nature experience more life satisfaction, and that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of a range of illnesses, including sleep problems, depression and heart disease.

“This initiative is an excellent step towards the realistic social-prescribing of birdwatching,” says Joe Harkness, author of Bird Therapy, a forthcoming book on mental health and birdwatching.

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“However, treatments of depression and anxiety will never be as simple as just handing someone a prescription to go and spend time outside. There are complexities in making this work, and a collaborative approach will be needed.”