GPs should be able to prescribe language lessons to patients who struggle with English, the chair of the Royal College of GPs has urged.

Dr Mayur Lakhani, who is also chair of the British minority ethnic review group at the government's health inequalities unit, told HSJ that language classes would help some patients access NHS services.

'It would be better for society. Anything that helps people take more care of themselves is a good thing,' he said. 'If you can't speak English and can't get a job you're more likely to have health problems.'

He said GPs are already using non-traditional methods of improving health outcomes, for example sending obese patients to gyms. Under the Department of Health's commissioning framework for health and well-being, NHS funds can be spent on non-health interventions using practice-based commissioning.

Dr Lakhani said he was unsure how English lessons would work in practice, but wanted to discuss the proposal with community groups.

NHS Alliance chair Dr Michael Dixon agreed with the idea in principle, but warned against making it universal.

'In many cases, where there's a shortage of money for cancer drugs, English lessons would go to the bottom of the pile,' he said.

He saw GPs initially playing a signposting role, with practices eventually paying for lessons using community funds and volunteers.

But British Medical Association international committee deputy chairman Dr Kate Adams said the scheme would need extra funding from primary care trusts.

'If it's taken on at a practice level, it would penalise those practices in deprived areas,' she said.

In the long term, English lessons may save PCTs translation costs, estimated to be costing the NHS at least£55m a year.

However, professor of health policy at Imperial College London Nick Bosanquet, who is consultant director of think tank Reform, questioned the cost-effectiveness of paying for English lessons with health money. 'The NHS is in danger of taking on too much,' he said.

Given that the government cut funding for many English language classes this year, it is unlikely local authorities would be willing to pick up the costs of such a scheme.

Institute for Public Policy Research senior research fellow Joe Farrington-Douglas said: 'Rather than shunting costs, PCTs and local authorities should see if there are gaps in provision and work together to fill them.'

A DoH spokesperson told HSJ it did not rule out English classes paid for by the NHS, saying it was 'a matter for local determination'.