A 'major public health campaign' launched by NHS England on Monday targets parents of young children, highlighting that a pharmacist may be able to offer more convenient, timely advice for patients facing minor illness.
Polling carried out to support the campaign found that although 79% of adults know pharmacists are 'qualified health professionals who can give advice on most common illnesses', just 6% of parents with children aged under five would visit a pharmacists as their first choice for help with a minor health concern.
One in three said they would go to a GP, and 5% said they would head to A&E.
NHS England says '18m GP appointments and 2.1m visits to A&E are for self-treatable conditions - such as coughs and tummy troubles - at a cost of more than £850m each year to the NHS. This is the equivalent of more than 220,000 hip replacements or 880,000 cataract operations.'
GP leaders backed calls for more patients to consider visiting a pharmacist before heading to their GP practice, but pointed out that if patients were concerned they should not feel put off from visiting their family doctor.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'GPs and our teams across the country are currently facing intense resource and workforce pressures, and patients can certainly help to ease this pressure by seeking advice from a pharmacist where appropriate, before making an appointment to see their GP.
'This new advice from NHS England is in line with the college’s own "3 before GP" guidance to encouraging patients to ask themselves whether they do actually need the expert medical care of a GP, or whether self-care, consulting a reputable online source such as NHS Choices, or asking a pharmacist for advice would be appropriate.
'We also understand that all parents worry when their child falls ill, and that ultimately, they are best placed to identify when something really isn’t right with their child. So, if parents notice anything of significant concern in child’s health or behaviour they should of course seek the advice of a GP or ringing NHS 111.'
GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'We know from our members that GPs are concerned about their ability to deliver safe care under the current strain of increasing demand, limited resources and a dwindling workforce, so we are supportive of any initiative that aims to ease the pressure on practices while carefully considering the needs of patients.
'This includes promoting the services of other highly-trained healthcare professionals in the community, such as pharmacists.
'First and foremost, however, GPs are there to provide safe and comprehensive care to their patients, so anyone with serious concerns about their health should not be discouraged from seeking advice from their doctor.'