February 15, 2018

EHR vs. EMR: Is There Any Difference?

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Tags: Medical

Even those in the health professions who use the technology daily tend to confuse electronic health records (EHR) and electronic medical records (EMR), perhaps using the two terms interchangeably, but there is a difference. When choosing a technology for your medical practice or a software that will replace your existing system, it’s important to understand the nuances that separate EHR vs. EMR.

But first, let’s define a few terms:

Electronic Health Records are designed to follow a patient from one practice or specialist to the next, throughout their lives. They provide a complete picture of the patient’s symptoms, vaccinations, treatments, and prescriptions.

Electronic Medical Records, on the other hand, live primarily at a single practice, and show a clear picture of the symptoms and prescribed treatment for each visit. While they can be shared among medical facilities, EMRs are designed to remain in the office the patient visits.

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EMR History

Electronic medical records were initially developed after the use of problem-oriented medical charts became standard procedure among medical professionals, starting in the 1960s. Rather than logging the medical professional’s understanding and treatment of the problem, the problem-oriented chart focused on the symptoms of the patient’s problem and the specific treatment prescribed. This change allowed physicians to compare charts based on symptoms, and better classify maladies.

Soon after, the rise of computers in the workplace allowed for the development of electronic medical records, which centralized and normalized healthcare information and delivery.

EMRs are a digital representation of the information that would have previously been stored in patients’ paper charts. Capturing this information electronically allows for easier population health modeling, tracking of community health issues, and provides an easily searchable, historical data store. So, is there any difference between this and an EHR?

EHR History

The term ‘electronic health records’ didn’t really emerge until 2004, when then-President George W. Bush mentioned it in his State of the Union address, announcing his initiative to make electronic health records available to most Americans within the next 10 years. In 2009, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act saw the beginnings of the Meaningful Use Incentive program. As part of this, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) established the features and functions that Certified Electronic Health Records Technology (CEHRT) must have in order for users to qualify for incentives. You can read more information about the incentive program’s background in our article: Meaningful Use in 2015: A History of Meaningful Use.

According to HealthIT.gov:

Electronic Health Records (EHRs) do [all the things done by EMRs] — and more. EHRs focus on the total health of the patient — going beyond standard clinical data collected in the provider’s office and inclusive of a broader view on a patient’s care. EHRs are designed to reach out beyond the health organization that originally collects and compiles the information. They are built to share information with other health care providers, such as laboratories and specialists, so they contain information from all the clinicians involved in the patient’s care.

So, could we just call an EHR a better, more up-to-date version of an EMR? They both capture clinical data and allow it to be searched and managed, but an EHR takes it a step further and focuses on promotion the exchange of data with other providers and making sure patient information can flow across the continuum of care.

Can Something Be Both an EHR and EMR?

Since the terms are used interchangeably, the short version is: yes, something can be both an EMR and EHR. There are several software systems that are classified by CMS as CEHRT, even though the vendors market their systems as an EMR. It’s entirely possible that these companies maintain their branding as EMRs out of a desire to not confuse long-time customers. The majority of systems still marketed as EMRs serve hospitals or larger physician groups. Perhaps this designation means we could start calling EMRs Enterprise Medical Records, instead.

Personal Health Records

Somewhat newer than EHRs or EMRs is the personal health record, or PHR. Though they’re closely related to electronic health records, personal health records have a few key differences. First, the patient takes responsibility for keeping the information up to date, not the physician. As a result, the information contained within is less clinical. Similar to the forms filled out during registration with a new provider, a PHR contains information about past medical procedures, family health history, and other pertinent health information.

A PHR also usually supports digital radiography storage, including X-rays, MRIs, and other images. Unlike EHRs and EMRs, there aren’t many purpose-built PHRs on the market today, so you might see a patient using a cloud storage provider like Dropbox or a note-taking application like Evernote in place of a formal PHR.

Benefits of Electronic Records

To fully consider the benefits of electronic medical or health records, one must consider the system they replaced: paper records. Although some providers may yearn for the good old days of paper charts and handwritten notes, most providers today agree that paper-based charting was a time suck and an organizational nightmare. If nothing else, physician handwriting is notoriously bad. Deciphering the patient’s history and previous orders caused many headaches — and that’s assuming you could find the patient’s chart at all. Despite the considerable growing pains experienced by many when adopting electronic records, most will agree that they’re a better system than what they replaced.

In the real world, there’s little difference between EMRs and EHRs. The terms can be used interchangeably — everyone will know what you’re talking about. If you want to get semantic, yes, EHRs focus more on the exchange of patient health information between care stakeholders, and EMRs are the legacy systems that are digital representations of the patient’s chart.

Have questions about EHRs or EMRs? Let us know in the comments, or call a Technology Advisor for a free, 5-minute consultation at 877.822,9526. Ready to start looking for your next electronic records system? Try our Product Selection Tool for fast, free recommendations.

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