The value of natural capital to health and wellbeingPUBLISHED ON: 16 MARCH 2023
By Dr James Alden
I am James, a paediatrician (children, not feet), by training and have been working for the New Forest National Park in the role of Public Health clinical fellow for nearly a year now. It has been a steep learning curve for me, but incredibly rewarding because of the richness of my experiences and the knowledge I have acquired. I have immersed myself in a completely new way of thinking and working and it has given me a newfound appreciation of our wonderful natural spaces, and the health benefits they bring, not just for ‘our population’, but also for me and my wellbeing.
It is useful to reflect on why I embarked on this ‘fork in the road’ of my reasonably straightforward career path; school, medical studies, junior doctor graft, followed by a consultant job.
The first answer is the obvious one – because it interested me. Public health is one of the most important pillars upon which modern medicine stands. From sanitation to vaccinations, physical activity to diet, it is present in much of our daily lives. However, on the front line, these principles understandably play a more subdued role. When a child is acutely unwell, it is not the time to tell their parents they need to stop smoking, (but is certainly should be when they are better). As a paediatrician, I was familiar the role of public health in terms of vaccinations, the emerging issue of childhood obesity, the insidious effects of poverty etc., but felt my understanding of the broader principles were inadequate.
The second answer is why not! The new(ish) structure of doctor training, for all its advantages, promotes a linear structure of progression. Combined with the workloads expected of us, and many other members of the NHS, mental bandwidth quickly gets used for service provision. This opportunity felt like a welcome break from the constraints of my usual role and provided some protected time to really commit to it.
The beginning of the placement was very much taken from a standing start. I was the first in post with a blank slate and very little practical prior knowledge. Much of the first few months was a lot of learning and an inescapable feeling of imposter syndrome. I suppose this speaks to the affliction of perfectionism that many doctors ‘suffer’ from. There were a few false starts as I explored how I might be useful, but I finally got to sink my teeth into a project where I could feel the potential for effecting change. An ONS report which seeks to value natural capital in terms of healthcare avoided costs was published in May 2022 and the prospect of applying the data to the New Forest National Park was exciting. Coupled with data from a 2018 telephone survey commissioned by the National Park team, we could estimate that the annual value of the National Park was £27 million, in terms of healthcare avoided costs, equivalent to 999 nurses’ starting salaries. The total number of hours estimated to be spent in nature by the local population was about 8.5 million! I felt like I was really building momentum behind a case for using this data constructively and the secondary data could potentially be used to value new interventions or greenspaces from a health and wellbeing perspective.
In amongst this, I found myself looking forward to exploring the New Forest. The ponies (of course), the beautiful forest (obviously), but also the coastline, the marsh birds, the nightjars (a real treat) and, of course, the mushrooms – a point of intrigue is the nail fungus; a rare mycelium with an affinity for horse poo! As non-local, my investment in the space was novel, and therefore an exploration, curated by people who had already embedded themselves within it.
The work I managed do in valuing the natural capital of the New Forest for Health and Wellbeing culminated in the report that is attached below. It has been presented to multiple different interests across the Hampshire area, including the Green Halo Partnership, Nature Health Network, Business South, and to National Parks Conference. The interest generated has been encouraging and from various stakeholders including from public, private, and third sectors. It has the potential for utility in each sphere and I hope that it serves to move the conversation of health and wellbeing forward in the New Forest and surrounding area.