Park RX: A Prescription for Nature

zarrAt Unity Health Care, in Washington, D.C. the clinical approach to wellness is focusing on the physical, mental and emotional health, as well as overall well-being of each patient.  Pediatrician Robert Zarr, MD, MPH, FAAP, has always understood that illness prevention and whole body health begins with empowering patients to adopt healthy habits, such as good nutrition and spending time outside. Yet, prescribing nature for low-income children and adults at risk for obesity and diabetes, among many other chronic diseases, is not an easy task.  The challenges included finding safe, clean, and accessible parks that can be easily identified in and around the urban Nation’s Capital.

Since 2010, Zarr has been collaborating closely with the National Park Service, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Institute at the Golden Gate, among many others, to create a rapidly growing national Park Prescription Initiative.

The National Park Prescription Initiative  or “Park Rx” is a national movement to prescribe time in parks to prevent and treat chronic disease and promote wellness.  The collaboration among health professionals, public land agencies, national nonprofits, and community organizations aims to promote nature and parks as a  low-cost intervention to foster positive health outcomes among Americans who suffer from preventable chronic diseases.  Indeed, the U.S. Surgeon General has issued a call to action, Step it up! for more walking and more walkable communities, and will be speaking at Meridian Hill Park on Sunday, April 24, 2016, at 11am for National Park Rx Day.

Through a local and national collaborative process, Dr. Zarr developed a searchable database of Washington’s 350 local and national parks and linked it to Unity’s electronic medical record.  The one page summaries, known as Park Pages, are used as a supplement to a patient’s treatment plan.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis right now. We are seeing an increase of diabetes and obesity in children and adults,” said Dr. Zarr in a recent interview the Diane Rehm Show. ( “So it is really important for people of all ages to be outside.  We are dying earlier, and suffering more because of chronic disease.  We have a growing body of scientific literature showing that we can increase our wellness by spending more time outside in natural settings.”

The Park Rx program is just one of Unity’s innovative approaches to patient care.  The health center, founded in 1985, is the largest primary health care agency in the area with a team of more than 980 professionals that include medical providers, nurses, medical and dental assistants, pharmacists, counselors, and social workers.  Every year, Unity’s dedicated staff provides quality care to more than 100,000 patients. Unity is also a Teaching Health Center and a medical school campus for A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine (ATSU-SOMA).


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