More 'social prescribers' to ease pressure on GPs
The number of workers trained to prescribe social activities, like exercise groups and art classes, to GP patients who don't need pills, is set to rise, under NHS England plans.
The aim is that "link workers" will support GPs and reduce their workload.
A link worker's role is to help patients find suitable community activities to improve their health and wellbeing.
The NHS says more than 1,000 will be recruited by 2020-21.
In the long term, it wants link workers to handle around 900,000 patient appointments a year.
It is thought that a significant number of appointments at GP surgeries are not directly related to medical conditions.
Instead, many patients are anxious or lonely or need support with managing a long-term condition.
Some just need encouragement to join an exercise group and lose weight.
'New lease of life'
A few years ago, Arif Qureshi, 51, was told he had pre-diabetes.
He knew he had to improve his lifestyle so a link worker referred him to a walking football club run by West Ham United Foundation in Newham.
He says it's been a revelation, helping him to lose 2st 4lb (15kg) in four months.
"It's been a big thing for me," he says.
"I'm more energetic, more upbeat and people come to me for advice on health now.
"I've got a new lease of life from exercise."
But he says he wouldn't have joined the football group, or found it, if hadn't been been for the nudge from the NHS and his link worker, who keeps in touch and assesses his progress regularly.
Link workers are part of NHS England's plans to personalise care for patients, so they can take greater control of their mental and physical health.
'Better than medicine'
James Sanderson, NHS England's director of personalised care, said 2.5 million people would benefit by 2024.
"Social prescribing is an important component of the NHS comprehensive model of personalised care and there is emerging evidence that it can lead to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes for people, such as improved quality of life and emotional wellbeing," he said.
"The aim is that social prescribing schemes lead to a substantial reduction in the use of NHS services, including GP attendances."
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the move was "incredibly welcome".
She said ensuring that GPs have "good, easy access to people who can link patients with classes or groups in the community, which could be of more benefit than any medicine..." is something doctors have been calling for for a long time.