By Todd Ackerman | May 2, 2018 | Updated: May 3, 2018 8:46am
Former First Lady Laura Bush’s conservation organization is creating a Center for Health & Nature at Houston Methodist Hospital, a first-of-its-kind attempt to investigate the potential therapeutic benefits of the outdoors.
The center, a partnership of Texan By Nature, Methodist and the Texas A&M University System, will conduct research, convene symposiums and feature a “healing garden” for patients and caregivers. It was announced at a news conference at Methodist Wednesday.
“Clearly, nature is important (to health),” said Bush, who founded the nonprofit Texan By Nature in 2011. “But (there’s) a gap in research regarding which nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means and how much exposure is needed. So I’m thrilled to be here to announce the Center for Health & Nature, which will help fill these research gaps.”
Bush cited research presented at a 2016 symposium convened by Texan By Nature that showed patients who spent 30 minutes in nature daily had a 7 percent lower incidence of depression and a 9 percent lower incidence of cardiovascular issues. Patients able to view a tree outside their hospital window, experts at the symposium reported, were discharged faster and needed fewer pain killers, Bush said.
The emerging area of research is a response to a public increasingly disconnected from nature, said scientists at the symposium, the inspiration for the center. They noted surveys show Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.
It is also a response to requests by patients. Methodist President Dr. Marc Boom told of the hospital’s recent efforts to accommodate the dying wish of a terminal patient, bedridden and hooked up to a number of machines, to go into the sunshine one last time.
The Health & Nature Healing Garden, to be constructed on the roof of a Methodist tower not yet constructed, will provide one of the first such laboratories to conduct experiments, most involving Methodist and Texas A&M University and Texas A&M Health Science Center researchers. The roughly one-acre garden will include trees, grasses, flowers, ponds, fountains and meditation areas.
It was designed by fifth-year Texas A&M landscape architecture student Phillip Hammond, part of a competition at the school. The selection, along with that of two runners-up, was announced at the news conference.
“Growing up in Austin, I would spend time on the University of Texas campus enjoying the Texas mountain laurel flowers blooming,” said Hammond, who will begin work at Halff Associates in Austin after graduating later this month. “I wanted to bring some of that to my design, a spiritual experience for the center.”
The center’s pilot research study, still being designed, will examine nature’s effect on patients with a functional type of heart failure. The study will compare the blood pressure and stress levels of patients seen in rooms with nice views, lots of plants and perhaps bird music with that of patients seen in rooms without the slightest trace of nature.
Dr. Karla Kurrelmeyer, a Methodist cardiologist leading the research, described the study as a first step. She said the effort to produce good research outcomes and provide guidance will be challenging because of the inherent difficulty controlling “confounders” — such as finding patients of similar age, disease status and ethnicity who also have a similar appreciation of nature.
“If one person loves nature and spends their time in the controlled setting meditating, they’re probably going to respond differently than someone who doesn’t care for nature and spends the time on their cell phone,” said Kurrelmeyer.
Texan By Nature received a $100,000 founder’s gift to start the project and is launching a $1 million campaign to fund initial research at the center. Methodist will build the garden.
Howard Frumkin, head of the “Our Planet, Our Health program at the Wellcome Trust in London, said in a statement said the field needs “just the kind of research this center will do — research that can guide practical public health strategies for years to come.”