DrFirst Healthcare Technology Blog

EMR and EHR: Know the Difference

November 30, 2011

In the healthcare community, the distinction between an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) and an Electronic Health Record (EHR) is somewhat ambiguous, and even many professionals think of the terms as synonymous.

The two systems appear similar because they both digitize patient records in a way that improves access to information.

But that’s where the similarities end. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes the differences between the two systems as significant.

While EMRs help medical professionals with computerizing health records, EHRs provide capabilities beyond basic digitization. Here is a breakdown of each system in addition to key distinctions between the two.

Electronic Medical Record (EMR)

An Electronic Medical Record is a digital version of a patient’s chart at a single organization. As an improvement over paper-based health records, EMRs help clinicians:

  • Assess patient trends over time
  • Monitor patient demographics
  • Schedule patients for preventative treatments and checkups
  • Quickly benchmark results on patient tests
  • Improve quality of care for all patients
  • Create easy-to-access digital versions of X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other tests

Outside of a medical group or system, patients’ records may not be digitally exportable to care providers and specialists. In this situation, between different organizations, EMRs are similar to paper — literally speaking; organizations will need to mail records to each other.

Electronic Health Record (EHR)

Think of this as the bigger picture. An EHR is like an EMR in the sense that it digitizes patient records to improve organizational efficiency.  Unlike an EMR; however, an EHR follows the entire health history of the patient for a comprehensive medical overview.

  • Providers that use EHRs are able to share information even if they are not members of the same organization.
  • With an EHR, health records follow the patient between specialists, organizations, lab facilities, and other patient care centers such as convalescent homes.
  • Patient data can move with patients across cities and states.
  • An EHR provides features for summarizing comprehensive demographic information.
  • Between organizations and care providers, EHR data remains secure and confidential.

The goal of the EHR is to improve care through ease of communication and transparency between providers and other healthcare organizations.

For instance, a primary care provider can quickly communicate allergies or preexisting conditions to emergency facilities — which is especially important if the patient is unconscious or unable to speak.

Patient Access to Data

HIPAA guidelines give patients the right to access health records, but with an EMR, patients must request copies of records.

An EHR gives direct access to the patients themselves. The intent is to keep the patient involved in managing her own care.

Usually, the patient will have access to an online account where she can track changes in lab results and monitor physician instructions for at-home care. Unlike an EMR, an EHR is interactive with the patient.

The Bottom Line

While many people think of EMRs and EHRs as interchangeable, the ability to follow the entire health history of a patient for a comprehensive medical overview dramatically sets them apart.

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About the Author

Irene Froehlich

Ms. Froehlich has been with DrFirst since its inception in 2000. In her role as Director of Marketing, she oversees the planning, directing, and coordinating all marketing and public relations efforts at DrFirst. Ms. Froehlich has a B.S. in Communications from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

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