The 2023 American Horticultural Therapy Association conference will soon be upon us. This year the AHTA has something significant to celebrate, a 50th anniversary. Since 1973, the AHTA has been and remains the singular national organization supporting the promotion and advancement of horticultural therapy as a therapeutic, vocational, and rehabilitative modality. The annual conference will be held virtually this year, on October 20th and 21st.
Accessibility for All
Laura Simonds-Rumpf, HTR, is a co-leader of the 2023 conference work team. She describes how the work team approached this conference differently, “This being the 50th anniversary of the formation of AHTA, the Board of Directors and the AHTA Conference Work Team wanted to acknowledge the momentous occasion and reflect on HT’s history in the US, its current state, and where it is leading. To explore this, the Conference Work Team selected two visionary keynote speakers.”
Rebecca Haller HTM, lead instructor and co-founder of the Horticultural Therapy Institute and a past president and board member of AHTA, has the unique perspective of having been in the HT field since 1978. She will speak to the “roots, growth, and interconnections” of HT through this lens.
To envision where the field of HT could go soon, Robert Zarr MD, founder & medical director of Park Rx America, will discuss the emerging trend of prescribing nature and nature-based activity to improve mental and physical health.
Gathering in person is, of course, the preferred forum but a virtual meeting does offer benefits. Laura explains, “The AHTA Board of Directors wanted to prioritize accessibility and inclusion in the 2023 conference. The registration fee for any student was reduced to $25 this year, in hopes that this will financially support the growing number of those taking coursework in HT to attend. By providing a virtual format in which travel isn’t necessary, it will enable a diverse array of speakers to present from many countries, including Austria, India, Nigeria, Peru, France, Canada, Scotland, Spain, Australia, and the UK.” Presentation topics will include horticultural therapy/therapeutic horticulture programming trends, visions for the future in the field, research on the use of HT/TH, practical advice on building partnerships, creating portable programming stations, and publishing in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture.
Park Prescriptions and HT
Today, the lack of access to health and wellness care services greatly impacts the overall health of our communities. Nature-based health and wellness programs are gaining recognition as viable, non-pharmaceutical, and cost-effective approaches to allay the epidemic that stress-related illness has engendered. One such initiative is Park RX, a non-profit focused on wellness, that began as a grassroots movement in October 2013. Park RX America has become the nation’s first park prescription program. Their mission is to increase health and happiness and foster environmental stewardship by encouraging doctors to routinely prescribe time in nature. This collaborative effort brings together physicians, allied health care providers, parks, and public land agencies along with community partners.
Today, 35 states across the nation and more than 5,000 physicians utilize Park Prescriptions. There are now two nationwide programs, Park RX America, and Walk with a Doc. Many of these programs focus on children and families, others focus on those living with dementia and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status, nature-based wellness programs are addressing a critical need. One initiative that has emerged out of this movement is the Campus Nature RX Network. “CNRx is a coalition of over 50 US colleges and universities dedicated to supporting campus mental and physical health through inclusive and equitable nature engagement teaching, research and outreach.”
It is rather easy to conceptualize how horticultural therapy could be integrated into wellness initiatives like Park RX. The greatest issue appears to be how do we find and connect with like-minded physicians? Is there a way to facilitate such collaboration within our own communities?
HT as an Evidence-based Medical Intervention
Andrew Zeiger is a fourth-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA, an AHTA member, an AHTA Magazine contributor, and is a student at the Horticultural Therapy Institute. During the summer of 2021, Andy had the opportunity to participate in a program at Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown, N.J. Andy recalls, “A collaboration had been created between the primary medical team, social work, and the local arboretum to provide young people with 3-foot by 3-foot garden plots to tend to for 3 months. The kids I observed, harvesting sugar peas, and excitedly running beneath tall sunflowers, were my first introduction to HT.” Andy was so captivated by the idea of integrating HT into pediatric clinical medicine that he took a break from medical school after his third-year rotations to study horticultural therapy. During that year, he was awarded funding, initiated research projects, and began taking coursework through HTI. Andy and a research team at Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity began to gather data. “We created a web-based survey and sent it to pediatric primary care providers in the Philadelphia, PA region within 11 health systems and seven organizations that run Federally Qualified Health Centers. Although not yet published, we found that over two-thirds of respondents believed primary care providers should help patients increase nature exposure, yet only 10% asked about nature exposure, provided resources to increase nature exposure, or prescribed nature exposure to a majority of their patients. Less than 10% had heard of HT while 70% were interested in continuing medical education on it. Half of the respondents would refer to a Horticultural Therapist if available.”
When asked why the US medical profession is not utilizing horticultural therapy, Andy replied, “Our U.S. healthcare system by and large is not aware of nor values nature-related, non-pharmacologic medical interventions. Further, the American population has grown distant from nature and its healing potential. Any tool that is evidence-based, safe, effective, and relatively inexpensive should be added to our collective toolkit with urgency. HT is one of those tools.” He goes on to say, “Park/nature prescriptions and HT constitute integrative health interventions that are becoming increasingly well supported by data from randomized controlled trials, the standard in clinical medicine, but we (the HT profession) currently do not have the human power to impact the medical system.”
Now, a year later, Andy has resumed his 4th year of medical school and will soon apply for Pediatric Residency. He continues to work with the research team at Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity and was recently awarded funding to continue this web-based survey across the nation. This project is currently underway. Andy will be presenting the data at the 2023 AHTA conference. He also has authored an article in the summer edition of AHTA Magazine entitled Horticultural Therapy in Every Hospital. This article includes a list of strategic objectives towards the goal of integrating HT into hospital settings.
To learn more about this research study and much more regarding the history and future growth of HT consider attending the 2023 AHTA Annual Conference on October 20-21. Register before September 1 to take advantage of the Early Bird discounts!