NHS England is planning to recruit and ‘army’ of 1,000 social prescribing ‘link workers’ to help alleviate the growing pressure on family doctors.

Explaining the premise for the move, the organisation noted that around half of GP appointments are not directly related to medical conditions, and it said evidence indicates that referrals to community services - such as exercise or art classes, history groups and even ballroom dancing - can boost health and wellbeing “more than dishing out pills or other treatments”.

Under a drive to ramp up social prescribing, link workers will be able to give people time to talk about issues, offer support, and find suitable activities that are a better alternative to medication, marking “a step change in the provision of personalised care”, NHS England said.

The blueprint for Universal Personalised Care - which, it is hoped, will enable GPs to deal with patients in most need of GP services - is due to be approved by the NHS England Board later this week.

The NHS Long Term Plan envisages that GPs surgeries will work to support each other in around 1,400 Primary Care Networks covering the country, with each network having access to a social prescriber link worker and NHS England agreeing to fund their salaries in full.

By 2023/24, social prescribers will be handling around 900,000 patient appointments a year, NHS England noted.

“As part of the NHS Long Term Plan, social prescribing will become an indispensable tool for GPs, who will be supported by a new army of workers,” said health and social care secretary Matt Hancock. “This is prevention in action and will help to combat some of the scourges of modern life, from loneliness to mental health, or over-medicalisation.”

Also supporting the move, Dr Richard Vautrey, British Medical Association (BMA) GP committee chair, noted: “GPs and their teams are under a huge amount of pressure to deliver high quality care to a rising population with increasingly complex needs, and therefore it is vital, now more than ever, that patients are able to see the right healthcare or support professional for them within a reasonable timeframe.

“The BMA has long-backed social prescribers supporting the general practice team, and this commitment to roll them out across the country is very welcome.”

The move was also applauded by the Royal College of GPs. Its chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, said: “Often the underlying reason a patient visits their GP is not medical, yet it can have a considerable impact on their health and wellbeing. Ensuring that GPs and our teams have good, easy access to people who can link patients with classes or groups in the community and other non-NHS services, that could potentially be of far more benefit than any medicine, is something the College has long called-for, so the focus on this is incredibly welcome.”

However, writing in blog published by The King’s Fund late last year, Beccy Baird voiced concerns about whether the “great potential” of social prescribing can be realised.

“Recent work, including from The King’s Fund, suggests that deep cuts to local authority funding and sometimes unhelpful clinical commissioning group (CCG) approaches to commissioning and contracting are harming the very organisations that provide the services that might be prescribed,” she wrote.

"If social prescribing is going to work, I think leaders of commissioning organisations (and in the future, integrated care systems) need to be serious about their role in supporting a vibrant voluntary and community sector, over and above investing in specific services.”