Sainsbury's is to give GPs free room to set up in-store surgeries and will market the service to shoppers.

The supermarket giant said it wanted to "explore and support" family doctors in offering in-store surgeries in response to customer demand.

David Gilder, professional services manager for Sainsbury's, told Pulse magazine in a letter: "There can be no doubt that primary care faces challenging times.

"The new NHS white paper, coupled with the current financial crisis, poses a series of challenges for primary care that will require them to develop new and innovative ways to deliver healthcare to patients.

"Whilst primary care trusts (PCTs) are exploring a number of routes to release efficiency savings towards their deficits, historical patient services are being questioned on whether there is sufficient evidence base and whether they deliver value for money."

Mr Gilder added: "Recognising the tough economic climate and demand from customers who tell us that they are keen to see more GP services offered in store, Sainsbury's has decided to provide the use of its consultation rooms to local GP practices without charge.

"Whether via the growth of individual practices, federations of practices or practice-based commissioners, Sainsbury's is keen to explore and support local GPs and help them deliver everything from core NHS services to secondary care diagnostics to private healthcare to patients.

"Sainsbury's will provide further support with in-store marketing aimed at shoppers to promote healthcare services offered and also support GPs in their efforts to deliver the local public health agenda."

Many supermarkets already run in-store pharmacies.

Sainsbury's launched an NHS service in 2008 in its Heaton Park store in Manchester.

The Doctor InStore scheme was run by local GP Dr Mohammed Jiva and has evolved into an NHS surgery.

Mr Gilder said: "After learning of the success of the scheme, GPs in other parts of the country began to express an interest in similar models.

"In response to this interest, Sainsbury's, with the support of Dr Jiva, is to embark on a national roadshow to liaise with local GPs and to help them establish whether their local Sainsbury's store could help deliver NHS healthcare services to patients."

Dr Jiva told Pulse: "Sainsbury's are essentially knocking down their current pharmacy rooms and rebuilding them to accommodate larger services which will be suitable for GPs.

"In total there are 204 stores that could be suitable.

"There will be no rent, no overheads to pay. The GPs that use these branches will get to keep their NHS revenue and their private revenue and Sainsbury's will gain in the extra footfall."

Richard Hoey, editor of Pulse, said: "There's something particularly symbolic about a major retail giant like Sainsbury's moving into NHS primary care in this way.

"As ever, the challenge will be to deliver healthcare in a national, corporate network while maintaining those intangible qualities of general practice that patients so value, such as continuity of care and a personal medical service."