HEALTH staff who have made a difference to the quality of service for patients have received awards.

The first annual awards ceremony highlighting achievements in the Durham Dales Primary Care Trust team took place at Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland.

Ken Jarrold, chief executive of County Durham and Tees Valley Strategic Health Authority, who presented certificates and prizes, said: "They are making a real difference to the lives of patients and carers."

Trust chairwoman Anne Beeton said: "The awards have been developed to highlight areas of excellence and service improvement that are being achieved in the Durham Dales area."

The Northern Echo's Chance to Live Campaign is making a real difference to the nation's health, Mr Jarrold, told the people at the ceremony.

He said that by the end of March, six years after the Echo campaign was launched, the maximum waiting time for heart surgery is due to be three months.

This compares with an 18-month wait in 1999, at the time Echo photographer Ian Weir died of a heart attack, the day before his hospital appointment to discuss a bypass operation.

Mr Jarrold said: "When The Northern Echo journalist Ian Weir died, there was a great outpouring of grief the next day in the paper from staff and colleagues.

"Then very quickly afterwards they began to say, 'would he have still died if he lived in France or Australia' because waiting lists are shorter there, and they began to do something about it.

"Now we have seen a huge improvement in waiting times."

The awards ceremony recognised excellence and service improvement in seven categories.

Award winners were:

Delivering First Class Service for Patients: The Urgent Care Centre nursing team at Bishop Auckland.

Delivering Improved Service Effectively: Hazel Davies, staff nurse, Weardale Community Hospital.

Delivering Excellence in Primary Care: Amanda Barker, health assistant, Station View Medical Centre.

Improving Health for the People of Durham Dales: Teresa Hutchinson, school nurse, Teesdale - for improving awareness of a healthy lifestyle.

Delivering Excellence through Partnership Working: Continuing Care Team, Durham Dales PCT - for putting together the "ideal" care package.

Primary Care Employee of the Year: Dr Fiona Hamilton, GP from Barnard Castle.

PCT Employee of the Year: Glenis Robinson, sister, Weardale Community Hospital - for raising money for equipment.