AMBULANCE bosses are holding a crunch meeting today with health chiefs to tackle a "whole system problem" - which is forcing its ambulances to queue for hours outside hospitals before they are able to transfer patients.
North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) has revealed it narrowly failed to meet its national target to respond to 75 per cent of life-threatening calls within eight minutes during the quarter ending December 31.
Last month The Northern Echo reported that paramedics were warning it was a matter of time before the delays result in a patient's death.
The latest NEAS figures for the month of December reveal the extent of the problem:
* Ambulances were left to queue 87 times for more than two hours before patients could be transfered into hospital.
* On 626 occasions ambulances queued for between one and two hours.
* As many as 14 NEAS ambulances have been left to queue outside hospitals on several occasions.
* The longest ambulance queues have been recorded at the University Hospital of North Durham, James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough and Sunderland Royal Hospital.
The crisis is being blamed on a lack of frontline clinical staff, a shortage of hospital beds and a sharp rise in the number of winter emergency admissions - resulting in ambulances being left to queue outside the region's accident and emergency departments.
NEAS is holding a summit today at its Newcastle HQ to tackle the growing problem of ambulances arriving to find they cannot transfer their patients quickly.
It warns a combination of handover delays and an increasing number of 999 calls make it more difficult to meet the national target of responding to 75 per cent of life threatening calls within eight minutes.
A report into response times by NEAS said: "There have been instances of up to 14 ambulances queuing at a hospital waiting for handover.
"This has happened in each Primary Care Trust cluster but most frequently at University Hospital of North Durham, City Hospitals Sunderland and James Cook University Hospital."
It said that the situation was made worse by an increasing number of hospital diverts, where ambulances are sent from one hospital to another during very busy times because of a shortage of beds.
The summit will involve representatives from every acute NHS hospital in the region, leading GP commissioners and the Strategic Health Authority.
The Department of Health has given NEAS an extra £1m to pay for a variety of initiatives to try and improve the situation.
These include hiring more doctors to vet 999 calls to ensure ambulances are only sent to genuine emergencies, encouraging the use of more community first responders and contracting a private agency to provide more doctors and nurses to provide greater clinical support for ambulance crews.
Glenn Turp, Royal College of Nursing regional director said: "The problem appears to be across the region, but fundamentally it is about resources.
"If you don't have sufficient front-line clinical staff to manage the hand-over, and you don't have the beds and equipment to care for the patients, this is the result.
"The Government needs to immediately halt it's misguided cost-cutting initiative, and start being honest about how much resource is needed to deliver a high quality service that doesn't leave patients waiting for hours in ambulances outside of hospitals. It's simply not acceptable."
Despite narrowly missing its response target for life threatening calls for the quarter ending December 31, NEAS bosses predict they will meet the national target for the last quarter of 2012-13.
A report by the NHS Confederation published in June last year concluded significant delays of more than 60 minutes were regarded as unacceptable.