One thousand people are to be recruited by the NHS to help GPs deal with some of the “scourges of modern life” from loneliness to mental health issues.
They will signpost people to services such as community support groups in a bid to boost health and wellbeing, as part of the NHS long-term plan.
It is hoped that by 2023-24, the social prescribing link workers will handle around 900,000 patient appointments a year.
GPs have welcomed the plans which Health Secretary Matt Hancock said will result in a new “army of workers”.
Around half of GP appointments are not directly related to medical conditions, NHS England said.
It said activities including history groups, and art or dance classes could help improve some people’s wellbeing more than prescribing pills and other medical treatments.
People who could benefit from meeting link workers include those with long-term conditions, those who need support to help with alcohol and smoking issues, or with their mental health, and those with complex social needs, NHS England said.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 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.”
The plan aims to have 1,000 link workers in primary care networks by April 2021.
Within five years it is estimated 2.5 million more people will benefit from social prescribing, a personal health budget, and new support for managing their own health in partnership with patients’ groups and the voluntary sector, NHS England said.
Mr Hancock said: “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.
“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.”
Each primary care network across England will have access to a link worker as part of the plan and NHS England has agreed to fund their salaries.