CORRECTION (Published 9/20/2012)
A story about Contra Costa County's new electronic medical record system incorrectly attributed a statement to the board of supervisors. The statement beginning, "We were not ready for EPIC and EPIC was not ready for us should have been attributed to Dr. Keith White, not Dr. Ori Tzvieli. Also, Tzvieli's union is negotiating with the county for a new contract, but Tzvieli is not one of the negotiators.

MARTINEZ -- One of every 10 emergency room patients at the county's public hospitals in September left without ever being seen by a doctor or nurse because of long waits -- a number rising since implementation of Contra Costa's $45 million computer system July 1.

One patient waited 40 hours to get a bed.

Dr. Brenda Reilly delivered the troubling news Tuesday afternoon to county supervisors. She was one of three dozen doctors in the supervisors' chamber complaining about EPIC, new computer software aimed at integrating all of the county's health departments to create a federally mandated electronic medical record for patients.

To allow for the major computer program installation and conversion, administrators cut doctors' patient loads in half, in turn cutting the number of available appointments in half.

In a letter to the supervisors, Dr. Ori Tzvieli -- medical staff president whose union has been negotiating a new contract with the county -- along with 14 doctor co-signers pleaded for administrators to continue scaling back physician workloads because doctors are over-stressed. Six doctors have left this year, said Dr. Keith White, a 22-year pediatrician.

"We were not ready for EPIC and EPIC was not ready for us," White told supervisors. "As a result, the providers are struggling to provide safe and effective care for 100,000 citizens of the county, many of whom are very ill. We often feel that we are failing. We are very tired ... many doctors have left and all are considering leaving."

In August, nurses at the county's detention facilities voiced concerns to the board saying ccLink -- the county's version of EPIC that became necessary after the passage of the Affordable Care Act -- and its quick installation jeopardized patient safety.

Both doctors and administrators agreed Tuesday that creating an integrated electronic health record is important, but a series of white coats stepped to the podium in what they jokingly termed "Doccupy" to share their nightmarish last few months.

Essentially, the county's doctors, nurses and medical staff switched from paper to computers on July 1, after months of preparation.

"This has been excruciatingly painful to do what is needed for those people who need it most," said Dr. Rachel Steinhart, an emergency room doctor who worked a graveyard shift ending Tuesday morning, hours before the board meeting. She said she still had to document paperwork for 16 of her patients. "It's going to implode. It can't go on like this."

The head of the county's health care system sympathizes, and hopes to work with medical staff to ease the transition for what is a monumental moment in medical history.

"We're in an era of massive change right now, not only in our system, but in the system nationwide," said Dr. William Walker, Contra Costa's health services director. "Coming with the rapidity is its throwing people off balance."

To ease the burden, Walker hopes to have teams of medical care providers formed to ease the doctors' paperwork burden, enabling them to return to treating patients.

The ccLink program has its benefits, some doctors said. Dr. Chris Farnitano, an ambulatory care medical director, described how he retrieved a patient's biopsy results from a different hospital on the spot, whereas in the past it would have taken weeks.

However, other doctors called ccLink clunky and time-consuming, designed more for bureaucrats than physicians. Even with doctors cutting their patient load in half -- meaning half as many appointments are available for patients -- doctors complained that they spend more time on their computers than treating patients.

"It's a truncation of patient care. The individual patient doesn't get the care they used to get," said David MacDonald, a 22-year family medicine doctor.

The lack of appointments has overburdened emergency rooms, which already exceeded emergency room wait benchmarks in a facility built to see 80 patients a day, but often sees more than 200 patients a day. Since ccLink started, the average patient spends four hours in the ER, up an hour from before the computer system transition, which was already over national benchmarks, said Reilly.

The supervisors asked for continued updates, and for patience.

"Continuous improvement means you need continuous change," said supervisor Federal Glover. "Eventually, it's going to become second nature as it was with cell phones. We'll wonder how we ever did without it."

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.