Health secretary Matt Hancock has announced plans to establish a National Academy for Social Prescribing to lead the practice under a renewed drive to improve the prevention of ill health.

The Academy is to "be the champion of, build the research base, and set out the benefits of social prescribing across the board, from the arts to physical exercise, to nutritional advice and community classes,” he said in a speech to The King’s Fund.

It will also provide a resource for GPs and other frontline health workers to access guidance and expertise on social prescribing, which basically enables healthcare professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services.

“I see social prescribing as fundamental to prevention. And I see prevention as fundamental to the future of the NHS,” Hancock said.

Social prescription “reduces over subscription of drugs, can lead to the same or better outcomes for patients without popping pills,” and saves the NHS money, “because many of these social cures are cheaper or free,” he claimed.

In addition to the National Academy for Social Prescribing, the Department for Health and Social Care, alongside the Arts Council and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), is also considering the potential of social prescribing through libraries.

“If we can connect even more libraries to GP surgeries and primary and community care services, and increase training for librarians on social prescription referrals, then we could reach even more people, and make libraries even more vital and valued to their local communities,” the health secretary said.

“So things like: dance classes for elderly people, choirs for loneliness and mental health reading groups. Using our libraries and librarians to intervene earlier and improve public health.”

Also up for consideration is the use of music to help people with dementia, to determine whether it can decrease the need for medication, reduce agitation and combative behaviour, and help patients and their families cope better with symptoms.

"Preventing people from becoming ill by emphasising the importance of preventative measures is a step in the right direction, but we need the right resources if we're going to be able to deliver far more of this kind of care,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, commenting on the plans.

"The College has long been calling for every GP surgery to have access to a dedicated social prescriber to help with this work, for example, but it's imperative that ultimately, general practice is given the investment it needs.”

According to a survey by GPonline reported earlier this year, one in four GPs now use social prescribing regularly.