RECORD number of patients have been accessing NHS services in the North-East over winter, health chiefs have revealed.

Staff at hospitals in the region have been dealing with the highest ever number of accident and emergency attendances and emergency admissions.

This is as well as unprecedented highs in the numbers of 999 calls to ambulance services and calls to NHS 111, and increasing demand on GPs.

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Dr Neil Munro, a consultant respiratory physician with County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, said: “This winter, hospital services in County Durham and Darlington have experienced a prolonged period of intense pressure on our inpatient beds.

“Respiratory diseases with particularly high levels of influenza-related illness in our increasingly frail elderly population have stretched our services.

“We have risen to the challenge with increased bed capacity, improved diagnostic services and clinical staff altering work patterns to ensure these additional patients are seen and treated in a timely fashion.”

Flu and the winter bug, Norovirus, are adding to the difficulties faced by hospitals and staff are working round-the-clock to prevent and reduce transmission.

Clive Kelly, a consultant in acute medicine, is running the winter pressure ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, where there has been a six per cent increase in admissions from last year.

He said: “We’re seeing many elderly patients and although the average age of our admissions is 84, we’re managing to get them well enough to leave hospital in about six days.

“By comparison, the length of stay for patients placed on wards without dedicated medical staffing is around 12 days and patient satisfaction much lower.”

Figures show around 25,000 more people die over the course of each winter compared with other times of the year.

Heart attacks increase and admissions of patients for stroke and respiratory conditions increase significantly between five and 12 days after the start of a cold snap.

Dr Jonathan Slade, a practicing GP in Stockton, said: “We urge people to see their pharmacist at the first sign of illness and self-care for common ailments like a cough, colds and sore throats. These are usually viral and do not get better with antibiotics.

“It is still not too late to get the free flu jab to protect yourself.”