By Ashly McGlone

FREMONT -- Paper medical records will soon become a thing of the past at Washington Hospital.

On July 1, the agency will join the ranks of other hospitals in the region that beat the Medicare payment penalty clock by switching to an electronic records system before 2015.

The more than $80 million Epic records project, dubbed "WeCare," was first approved by Washington's board of directors in 2010 and staff training began in 2011, Associate Administrator Ed Fayen told directors Wednesday.

The hospital has ramped up its preparation efforts in recent months, bringing in fill-in nurses so staff nurses can get trained and telling doctors they will lose staff privileges if they do not attend training before the July 1 rollout.

Fayen said staff has spent months converting millions of patient encounter records at the hospital and clinics into electronic form and consolidating patient files to remove duplicates.

Aside from the legal requirement for the electronic system -- prescribed in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- the change aims to make a patient's information available in one place, increasing patient safety and reducing the chance for errors, officials said. It will also aid in the flow of information between the hospital and its new health partner UCSF Medical Center, which is already using the same records system.

Patients should have secure access to portions of their medical record, be able to view test results and schedule doctor appointments online by late summer.

The hospital began phasing in the system with its 58 Washington Township Medical Foundation physicians in December, a process that lasted until April.

To date, more than 400 of the hospital's 536 physicians have spent 3,090 hours in system training, and more than 1,600 of its 1,884 employees have spent 22,831 hours, officials said last week.

"It is an arduous process. I don't think we should underestimate the stress level of our caregivers when this system is turned on," CEO Nancy Farber told the board of directors Wednesday. "We will make it. It's just a tough adjustment and it does rearrange how people work and it will be upsetting for some people and other people will take to it more quickly."

The Epic records system tapped by Washington and 290 other customers has had its share of detractors.

Two months after Contra Costa County rolled out the Epic system last July at county-run health facilities and jails, three dozen doctors bemoaned the system at a board of supervisors' meeting, saying it left them stressed and struggling to provide safe and effective care. Patients there also felt the pain when administrators cut doctors' patient loads in half to allow for the transition, reducing appointments and leaving at least one patient waiting 40 hours for an emergency room bed.

Farber said she was told by other institutions using Epic that training is key and those with short transition periods fared worse than others.

"We will have plenty of helpers on the floors," she said.

To ward off problems, Washington plans to make available an army of people 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the three to four weeks after the system goes live.

Included will be 20 physicians and 200 consultants and employees trained as "super users" to help staff and doctors, 35 trainers and about 30 people from Epic to help troubleshoot, as well as a group of patient advocates who will make rounds to answer questions for patients and family members.

Others using the Epic system include UCSF Medical Center, Stanford Hospital & Clinics, John Muir Medical Center, Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente campuses, Washington Hospital officials said.

Washington doctors who choose to not purchase the Epic records system for use off-site at their office can access the hospital's records through an Internet portal, staff said.

As for penalties, doctors and hospitals that serve Medicare patients must demonstrate "meaningful use" of a certified electronic health records system by 2015 or endure a 1 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursements. The reduction increases to 2 percent in 2016, 3 percent in 2017 and can reach as high as 5 percent in later years depending on the level of use.

Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo, San Ramon and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.