Nature-based health projects save NHS time and money


Nature-based health and wellbeing programmes could save hundreds of millions of pounds each year and reduce society's reliance on the NHS, according to a new report by The Wildlife Trusts.

The publication, entitled A Natural Health Service: Improving Lives and Saving Money, found that green prescribing can save more in healthcare costs than the price of running a green prescribing scheme.

Green prescribing is an evidence-based pillar of social prescribing that harnesses the health, wellbeing, and social benefits of spending time in nature. It enables GPs and other health care practitioners to refer people to nature-based programmes to improve physical and mental health.

The new research, undertaken by global strategic environmental and engineering consulting company, Ricardo plc, and The Institute of Occupational Medicine Health, analysed five Wildlife Trusts programmes to see how they benefitted the NHS.

A 'Natural Health Service' has the potential to save the NHS huge amounts of resources (The Wildlife Trusts).

If just one of these programmes was offered to everyone likely to take them up – estimated at 1.2 million people – it could result in annual cost savings of £635.6 million.

Wild at Heart by Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust is a social group that runs nature-based activities and helps people learn new skills. Analysis found healthcare cost savings of £38,646 of 82 participants over a year. For every £1 invested, there is £1.19 of additional benefit in terms of reduced costs to the NHS.

MyPlace by Lancashire Wildlife Trust helps people improve mental and physical health. Analysis found healthcare cost savings of £7,024 and reduced employment-related costs due to mental health of £28,442. For every £1 invested, there is £2.16 of additional benefit in terms of reduced costs to the NHS.

Feed the Birds by Shropshire Wildlife Trust addresses social isolation and loneliness by linking individuals with volunteers who help them feed birds. Analysis found healthcare cost savings of £15,460 per year of 57 people.  For every £1 invested, there is £0.40 of additional benefit in terms of reduced costs to the NHS. Assuming all participants were fully engaged over the full 31-month duration, the accumulated benefits over this period are much higher, at around £102,440.

Nature for Health in Greater Manchester is part-run by Lancashire Wildlife Trust and harnesses the power of nature to improve mental health. Analysis found healthcare cost savings of £44,745. For every £1 invested, there is £0.18 – £0.93 of additional benefit in terms of reduced costs to the NHS.

Wild Health by Gwent Wildlife Trust provides opportunities for recreational, social, and work-based outdoor activities that benefit physical and emotional well-being. Analysis found healthcare cost savings of £66,882, equating to £471 saving per participant. For every £1 invested, there is £0.58 – £1.10 of additional benefit in terms of reduced costs to the NHS.

Dom Higgins, head of health and education at The Wildlife Trusts, said: "This new research proves the immense value of nature-based projects for improving individual health and helping to ease the burden on the NHS. Nature is an essential part of health and social care, but we are not maximising that potential. Green prescribing works and the more we can develop these kinds of programmes, the greater the benefit to society.

"We need more investment for community-based health services and clear backing from Government for green prescribing. Ahead of the election, we'll be paying close attention to how policies join the dots between nature, health, and social inequalities. The evidence is clear – investing in nature makes sense for people, our health service, and the economy."

Dr Amir Khan, NHS doctor and vice-president of The Wildlife Trusts, added: "What excites me about this research is that it shows the potential of Wildlife Trusts programmes to work alongside and reduce reliance on NHS services. Programmes that tackle some of the causes of preventable illnesses: social isolation that can lead to feelings of loneliness or depression, physical inactivity – which is linked to musculoskeletal problems, and a lack of skills or prospects leading to economic inactivity. The Wildlife Trusts' programmes can shoulder some of the burden of 'mainstream' NHS services, and they should be available to all health professionals, to refer patients to, where appropriate."

To increase access to green social prescribing projects and enable the NHS to benefit, The Wildlife Trusts are calling on the UK Government to integrate green prescribing into community health and social care services everywhere, encourage shared investment from Government departments working on housing, employment, community cohesion, transport and culture, and provide support to help strengthen partnerships between local healthcare services and community-rooted organisations like Wildlife Trusts.