NHS chiefs say plans are in place to deal with the expected surge in demand for health care as winter temperatures plummet.

Preparations for winter began even earlier this year with hospitals, community services, GP practices and NHS organisations across the region developing strategies to manage the increased pressure.

Hospital A&E departments often bear the brunt, so monitoring systems are in place to identify issues and manage patient flow across the region.

A range of A&E initiatives have been introduced, such as direct access to specialists and direct booking for emergency outpatient assessment and care.

In addition, clinical streaming at every major A&E will ensure non-emergency patients are cared for appropriately.

Dr James McFetrich, Consultant in Emergency Medicine at the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital, Cramlington, said: “We get sicker, older and more complex patients coming to A&E in winter so it is more difficult to manage. We’ve really worked hard this year on the way we decide who is best to care for patients in the first 15-30 minutes and stream patients so that they receive more appropriate and quicker treatment.

“Through gathering important patient information early in their assessment in A&E and organising relevant investigations, the patients are aware that they are continuously moving through the system. When their turn comes to be fully assessed all the information from these investigations is in place and helps us plan at that point any further treatment.”

For those admitted to hospital, timely ward rounds are being prioritised to allow patients to be seen quickly and to return home promptly if ready to be discharged. Most hospitals in the region have also introduced discharge lounges to free up beds on wards.

NHS England’s Medical Director for Cumbria and the North East, Professor Chris Gray, said: “We are reassured to see how partners and staff have worked together to prepare for winter - it is a huge team effort across every part of the health and social care system.

“We all have a responsibility to use our NHS services wisely and there are also things we can all do to take care of ourselves. It is vital that the most vulnerable people take preventative steps to stay well such as wrapping up warm, stocking up medicine cabinets and making sure prescription drugs are collected well before bank holidays.

“A high number of winter A&E attendances are due to issues which could have been avoided had people asked for medical advice at the first sign of illness. Advice is available by calling 111, on the NHS Choices website or from your local pharmacist or GP.”

Work is being carried out in County Durham to cut hospital admissions for older people through a Proactive Home Visiting Service, supporting care home patients identified by GPs as being at high risk. A nurse-led visiting service has also been set up, supported by GP telephone advice and home visiting where required.

Dr Stewart Findlay, chief clinical officer at Durham Dales and Easington Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We’ve been looking at additional support that we can put in place this year focussing on proactive visiting for vulnerable patients, this includes weekends to ensure patients receive support when its really needed.”

In Darlington, community matrons and GPs are aligned to a number of care homes and they work together to implement care plans and manage daily concerns to support residents. As a result, emergency hospital admissions are reducing.

To support this Darlington CCG is seeking to make more use of technology to avoid the onset of infections.

Top tips to stay well

1. Get your flu jab – This is the most effective way to protect yourselves and you loved ones from flu. All NHS Staff and those most at risk (those with long term conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, those over 65 and pregnant women) are entitled to a free flu jab. Carers and those with certain medical conditions are also entitled to a free vaccination.

2. Choose wisely - Know which NHS service is best for your needs – Check the NHS Choices page: www.nhs.uk/pages/home.aspx for medical advice and to find the right service.

3. If you care for children – download the child health app which is free and contains a wealth of advice and support

4. If you have a long term health condition such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – speak to your care coordinator about how best to manage your symptoms and conditions over the winter.

5. Stock up your medicine cabinet – make sure you have the essentials over the winter and especially over the bank holidays

6. Antibiotics – only use those which are prescribed to you. They are no good for coughs and colds.

7. Norovirus – if you have symptoms of the winter vomiting bug stay away from hospitals, care homes and schools. Wait until you are symptom free for 48 hours before you visit any public places or relatives.

8. Keep warm – make sure your home and those of your loved ones are warm this winter. At least 18°C

9. For medical advice needed quickly but not an emergency, call NHS 111. In an emergency call 999.