It’s easy to revel in the arts, food culture, real estate and all the other treasures the Rural Intelligence region offers us. But if there’s one element that trips us up, it’s the fact that when it comes to healthcare, we’re recipients of “rural” medicine. To those who have moved here from cities with some of the best medical facilities in the world, that can be a hard pill to swallow.
On the other hand, could there be any more perfect place in the entire country (okay, so we’re prejudiced, but hear us out) to embrace the Park RX movement? It’s a national organization of health practitioners advancing the use of parks and public lands to improve health and wellness. Think walks, hikes, campfires and “bathing” in the forest.
A local practitioner is pulling from that concept to bring a similar program here. Eric Krawczyk’s Nature Treatment is a program in collaboration with healthcare providers, land managers and community partners that offers a natural alternative to medicine.
“In my line of work over the decades, I’ve seen the benefits of time outside playing, hiking, enjoying nature — something our county has a lot of,” says Krawczyk, a licensed mental health counselor and certified Forest Therapy Guide in Great Barrington, Mass. Having moved here from Colorado three years ago, he found the area a challenging environment for our healthcare system.
“We get the least resources from the state, and our primary care doctors really struggle to meet the needs of the community,” he says. Nature Treatment is an initiative to collaborate with healthcare providers to prescribe nature as a healing modality.
“It’s not a replacement for our healthcare system, but it can be a preventive option,” says Krawczyk, who specializes in “nature-based therapy” and often meets with his clients at outdoor offices around South Berkshire County.
Krawczyk started pulling Nature Treatment together last summer, and has assembled a team of like-minded physicians and other health practitioners as “park prescribers.” In October, he began scheduling “Hikes with Healers” on the third Saturday of the month to introduce the concept. Each outing features a different provider in the community who supports spending time in nature. There are also forest therapy walks, longer sessions that “allows nature to be the therapist,” he says. “We meet with the participants afterwards to talk through the experience.” For the forest therapy walks, Krawczyk hopes to partner with employers and employee wellness programs.
And yes, he says, some insurance programs do cover the cost of a park prescription. There is hard science behind the benefits of “Vitamin N.” (The Nature Treatment website provides a list of 100 reasons to hike, with links to studies and articles for each item.) In Japan, shinrin-yoku is the practice of “forest bathing” — immersing oneself in the atmosphere of the forest for relaxation and health care. The Washington Post declared forest bathing the latest stress-reducing trend in the U.S.
“You’re getting vitamin D, clean air, more oxygen. It’s experiential and movement based, and a way to ease the symptoms of nature deficit disorder.”
Each Nature Treatment program is an evolution of the Park RX idea. “I see my role as being a local health ranger,” Krawczyk says. “We don’t administer medication; instead, we introduce a client or group to a particular park. My goal is to train providers and practitioners to refer clients to this network of options.”
Krawczyk is a certified Forest Therapy Guide from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which will be holding a Forest Therapy Guide Training at Ramblewild in Lanesborough, Mass. this summer.
Getting the buy-in from both other practitioners and land managers may be the most challenging part. Fortunately, Krawzcyk has Mark Pettus, MD on his side. Director of medical education, wellness and population health at Berkshire Health Systems, the internist and nephrologist has been a champion of Nature Treatment from the get-go. Krawczyk calls him the top guy for wellness and prevention in the area. Krawczyk has also been meeting with land managers to build a relationship and get some informal support for Nature Treatment’s programs.
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