Parents of young children with minor illnesses should take them to pharmacies rather than GPs or A&E, a new NHS England campaign says.
It follows a survey which found just 6% of parents with under-fives would go to a pharmacist first.
NHS England said visits to GPs and A&E for these “self-treatable” conditions, like stomach ache, cost £850m a year.
But parents should not be put off seeing a doctor, a patients’ group said.
GPs’ leaders said parents of children with a very high temperature that doesn’t go away should still seek help from a medical expert.
NHS England’s Stay Well Pharmacy campaign is urging people to visit their local pharmacist first to help save the service money and free up time for the sickest patients.
It said each year there were about 18 million GP appointments and 2.1 million visits to A&E for so-called self-treatable conditions – costing the service the equivalent of more than 220,000 hip replacements or 880,000 cataract operations.
Its survey of more than 2,000 people in England found 35% of parents of children under five would go to a GP if their child had a minor illness, such as earache, diarrhoea or stomach ache, while 5% would go directly to A&E.
The NHS survey also found that only 16% of adults would go to a pharmacist first if they were similarly unwell.
Dr Bruce Warner, deputy chief pharmaceutical officer for NHS England, said: “Pharmacists are highly trained NHS health professionals who are able to offer clinical advice and effective treatments for a wide range of minor health concerns right there and then.
“They can assess symptoms and recommend the best course of treatment or simply provide reassurance, for instance when a minor illness will get better on its own with a few days’ rest.
“However, if symptoms suggest it’s something more serious, they have the right clinical training to ensure people get the help they need.”
What can pharmacists do?
Advise on the safe use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines
Some can manage repeat prescriptions
Give advice about a range of common conditions and minor injuries, such as sore throat, coughs, colds and flu
Advise on whether you need to see a GP
Offer healthy lifestyle advice
Some offer the NHS Health Check for people aged 40-74, which is designed to spot early signs of stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia
Timing ‘not a coincidence’
However, the Patients Association said it was important parents did not feel put off from seeing a doctor if they thought something more serious was wrong.
The charity’s chief executive, Rachel Power, said: “For common childhood illnesses, a pharmacist will often be a sensible first port of call, so we welcome efforts to raise awareness of the support they can offer.
“Equally, we wouldn’t want to see parents put off taking their children to see a doctor if they have any suspicion that something more serious could be wrong.
“While this campaign has its merits, the timing is not a coincidence. The pressures facing the NHS after years of underfunding and mismanagement of its workforce create a huge incentive to discourage people from using GPs or A&E.
“Often people will be right to use alternatives, but we don’t want to hear of more cases where someone has stayed away and subsequently come to serious harm because they were in fact seriously ill.”
The Royal College of GPs said patients can help to ease the “intense pressure” on GPs by seeking advice from a pharmacist, who they said were “highly-skilled medical professionals”.
“But of course, they are not GPs and in an emergency or situation where genuinely unsure, patients should always seek expert medical assistance, particularly if parents see potentially serious symptoms in their child such as a very high temperature that doesn’t respond to simple measures, features of dehydration or lethargy, ” said chairwoman Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard.
The NHS’s Stay Well Pharmacy campaign will feature a TV advert and digital and social media advertising.