The NHS is conducting a survey to find out why people in England and Wales make more than 51 million "unnecessary" visits to their GPs or hospital A&E departments every year.

Almost one in five visits to GPs each year are for minor problems, and health care leaders warn that these are draining resources from caring for older, chronically-ill people and are also having a knock-on effect of placing A&E and emergency departments under further pressure.

Figures show that 51.4 million people every year visit their GP with minor problems which would clear up by themselves or through use of an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy. These include as many as 40,000 GP visits a year for dandruff, 20,000 for travel sickness and 5.2 million for blocked noses.

'We are not saying that people should not go to see their GP or use their A&E, emergency and 999 services if they believe they are seriously ill. We need to understand how we can encourage them to help themselves for common problems," says Dr Paul Stillman, a GP and member of the national Self Care Forum, which is working with the NHS on the survey, as part of the Service's Choose Well campaign.

 "We have a growing older population in England. More people are living longer with complex or long-term health conditions - this is great news for everyone, but it does mean we need to take steps so that we can focus more resources on these potentially vulnerable groups of people," Dr Stillman says.

"Empowering people individuals to access and understand appropriate information that supports shared and informed decision-making about treatment, self-care and lifestyle choices is key to helping people understand how they can better look after themselves," adds Stephanie Varah, chief executive of the National Association for Patient Participation (NAPP) and the patient champion for the Self Care Forum.

Meantime, latest government figures show that GP prescribing costs in England during the first quarter of 2012 fell by £30 million to £2.08 billion, compared with the first three months of 2011. The number of items prescribed during the quarter increased from 229 million to 241 million, a rise of 11.2 million, but it is estimated that the cost per prescribed item dropped by an average of 6.2%, according to new data from the NHS Information Centre.

Publication of this information follows Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge in July 2011 that prescribing data by GP practice would be made available by December of that year. The general practice prescribing data - which is released under the terms of the Open Government Licence - lists, for each general practice in England, the total number of items prescribed and dispensed, the total net ingredient cost and the total actual cost.