PORTUGUESE nurses are being brought in to help avert a care crisis in county hospitals this winter.
A combination of severe weather and staff shortages left both Cheltenham General and Gloucestershire Royal Hospitals close to breaking point last year.
Health chiefs are determined to make sure there is no repeat this season and have turned to the continent to draft in emergency staff.
From December, 35 fully qualified nurses will start work at the two hospitals.
And there is more good news for patients.
Around 60 newly qualified nurses have expressed an interest in working in the county in January, with 20 more shortlisted as cover following a country-wide radio appeal.
The recruitment programme has been hailed as a huge success by nursing director Maggie Arnold.
"It is important we support these nurses and continue with the recruitment drive," she said.
"Nurses will retire and some will leave, so we have to be prepared. We must not find ourselves in the same position as last winter.
"The nurse training in Portugal seems more thorough than in Britain, and they are certainly very well qualified."
The Portuguese nurses will be in the UK for up to a year. Mrs Arnold said their training involved a stronger focus on patient care than in the UK, and follows a more intensive clinical programme.
January 28 this year proved to be one of the busiest days on record for hospital staff.
The average admission number in winter is 112 a day. On that Monday it was 157.
From January 2011 to December 2012, Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust paid out £1,396,482 to cover the cost of hiring extra agency staff to cope with absence and an increased workload.
With winter just weeks away, trust chief executive Frank Harsent insists hospitals are ready.
"If we do not change our approach from last winter we will end up with the same results, that is not acceptable," he said.
"It was difficult for patients and difficult for staff.
"That must not happen again.
"There need to be changes to the system and the process if we are not going to have difficulties.
"Moving and discharging patients will be key.
"We will be trying to get more people to go home with a package of health care, rather than into a nursing home.
"In the middle of winter we can see an extra ward of patients coming in on any day. Trying to predict which day that will be is very difficult and it is hard to plan for."
Two extra medical wards are opening up at GRH to cope with demand during winter, and staff are being encouraged to take part in a widespread flu vaccination programme. Rapid response teams of community nurses and health care professionals are likely to be on the ground by December.
The £3.9million Gloucestershire Care Services programme aims to reduce unnecessary admissions to hospitals by treating people at home within an hour.