Medical terms can be confusing, even when you can pronounce them. Case in point: electronic health records (EHRs) and electronic medical records (EMRs). At first glance, they may appear to be essentially the same thing. In fact, many healthcare practitioners and their staff often use these terms interchangeably. But, while both are an electronic version of a patient’s medical records, there are significant differences between the two.
Let’s take a closer look at EHRs vs EMRs, and the differences and similarities between them.
What are electronic medical records?
Electronic medical records, or EMRs, are a digital version of a patient’s medical chart and are maintained solely in the healthcare practitioner’s office. Starting in 2014, all public and private healthcare providers who relied on Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements were required to adopt EMRs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (2)
This mandate came after studies showed that the inability to access clinical data (kept in handwritten medical patient charts) was one of the most common causes of preventable death among patients. (4)
Compared to paper records, EMRs boast several benefits, including:
- Allowing clinicians to easily identify when a patient is due for a checkup or screening (3)
- Improving privacy and security of patient data compared to paper records (17)
- Keeping track of a patient’s specific parameters, such as blood pressure readings (3)
- Monitoring and improving overall quality of care within the practice (3)(5)
- Tracking data over time (3)
EMRs may also be more accurate and convenient than paper records. During one study conducted at Indiana University-Purdue University, researchers found that EMRs were 40% more complete and 20% faster to retrieve than their paper counterparts. (6)
But for all these benefits, EMRs aren’t perfect. The biggest drawback is that they can’t be accessed outside of the practice by other healthcare providers. (3)(7) Instead, they must be printed out and either faxed or mailed to specialists or other members of the patient’s healthcare team. (3)
Did you know? The first EMR systems were developed in the 1960s and were known as clinical information systems. (1)
What are electronic health records?
So what is the difference between an electronic health record and an electronic medical record? Like EMRs, electronic health records (EHRs) contain a patient’s digital medical record, but they offer so much more. EHRs aren’t solely limited to a patient’s medical information from just one medical practice. Instead, they have the potential to provide a real-time, patient-centered account of a person’s total health status. (8)(9)
Unlike EMRs, EHRs can be accessed and updated by other healthcare providers like specialists, laboratories, and hospitals. (3) This ability to share information about a patient across the entire healthcare team can improve their care in a coordinated way. For instance, an EHR can let emergency department staff know about a patient’s allergies and current medications. This can improve care by preventing contraindications or adverse interactions. (3) EHRs also include tools for prescribing medications electronically, ordering lab work, and more.
Another benefit of EHRs is the patient’s own ability to access their information via a patient portal. (10) This not only allows them to review their medical history, office visits, and lab results, but they can also set up appointments, fill out intake forms, or make payments—something patients can’t do with EMRs.
While EHRs are still evolving, they have the capability to allow for:
- Accurate, up-to-date patient information at the point of care (17)
- An automated and streamlined provider workflow (16)
- A “one-stop shop” for a patient’s medical history, diagnoses, medications, immunization records, allergies, lab results, and radiology images (16)
- Better privacy and security of patient data compared to paper charts (17)
- Clarity of complex post-treatment orders for patients (12)
- Decreased risk of medical and diagnostic errors by as much as 54% (13)(14)(15)
- Enhanced provider-to-provider messaging (11)
- Greater levels of patient engagement (19)
- Legible, complete documentation and accurate coding and billing (17)
- Less duplication of testing by various healthcare practitioners (17)
- Less prescribing errors (12)(17)
- Lower costs due to less paperwork (17)
- Portability (13)
- Shared patient medical data across multiple providers (16)
Did you know? According to a national survey, 75% of healthcare practitioners report that EHR systems allow them to deliver better patient care. (18)
Standardizing electronic records
The move from paper records to EMRs is a fairly straightforward process since these records are only available to be used within a single practice. But as more and more medical practices and healthcare organizations make the move to EHRs, the need for standardization among software platforms becomes essential. Since consistency is key for quick and easy access to a patient’s health information among a variety of providers, EHR software that uses the same structured format can make it easier for all members of a patient’s healthcare team to share information. (20)
To help meet this need—at least among practices that accept Medicare and Medicaid—the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have joined forces with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to establish standards for structured data that EHRs must meet to qualify for the Medicare Promoting Interoperability Program. Using these certified platforms should boost the ability to share information among both practitioners and patients. It may also help to strengthen a patient’s information privacy and security. (21) While this program is one of the first to promote standardized EHRs, it may lead to more consistent structure among and between all medical professionals and healthcare facilities.
The bottom line
Even though the terms EMR and EHR are often used interchangeably, the two types of electronic record-keeping aren’t the same. Unlike EMRs, which are confined to just one practice, EHRs are more comprehensive. They provide a deeper view of a patient’s health and can be shared and updated by other practitioners. They also provide the ability for electronic prescribing, ordering and reviewing labs, and facilitating provider-to-provider communication in real time. These capabilities have been shown to reduce diagnostic and medical errors and enhance productivity. The result is better patient care.
- Alkureishi, M.A., Lee, W.W., Webb, S., & Arora, V. (2018). Integrating patient-centered electronic health record communication training into resident onboarding: Curriculum development and post-implementation survey among housestaff. JMIR Medical Education, 4(1), e1.
- Alotaibi, Y.K., & Federico, F. (2017). The impact of health information technology on patient safety. Saudi Medical Journal, 38(12), 1173–1180.
- Asan, O., Tyszka, J., & Crotty, B. (2018). The electronic health record as a patient engagement tool: mirroring clinicians’ screen to create a shared mental model. JAMIA Open, 1 (1), 42–48.
- Atasoy, H., Greenwood, B.N. & McCullough, J. S. (2019). The Digitization of Patient Care: A Review of the Effects of Electronic Health Records on Health Care Quality and Utilization. Annual Review of Public Health, 40(1), 487-500.
- Atherton, J. (2011). Development of the Electronic Health Record. Virtual Mentor, 13(3), 186-189.
- Ayaad, O., Alloubani, A., ALhajaa, E.A., Farhan, M., Abuseif, S., Al Hroub, A., & Akhu-Zaheya, L. (2019). The role of electronic medical records in improving the quality of health care services: Comparative study. International Journal of Medical Informatics, 127, 63-67.
- Certified EHR technology. (2022). Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. https://www.cms.gov/Regulations-and-Guidance/Legislation/EHRIncentivePrograms/Certification
- Frequently asked questions: What are the advantages of electronic health records? HealthIT.gov. https://www.healthit.gov/faq/what-are-advantages-electronic-health-records
- Gamal, A., Barakat, S., & Rezk, A. (2021). Standardized electronic health record data modeling and persistence: A comparative review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 114, 103670.
- Garrett, P. & Seidman, J. (2011). EMR vs EHR—What is the difference? HealthIT Buzz. https://www.healthit.gov/buzz-blog/electronic-health-and-medical-records/emr-vs-ehr-difference
- Graber, M.L., Byrne, C., & Johnston, D. (2017). The impact of electronic health records on diagnosis. Diagnosis (Berl), 4(4), 211-223.
- Holmgren, A.J. & Apathy, N.C. A(2022). Assessing the impact of patient access to clinical notes on clinician EHR documentation. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, ocac120.
- H.R. 1331. Electronic Health Records Improvement Act. 113th Congress. https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/1331/text
- Improved diagnostics and patient outcomes. HealthIT.gov. https://www.healthit.gov/topic/health-it-and-health-information-exchange-basics/improved-diagnostics-patient-outcomes#footnote-1
- Janett, R.S. & Yeracaris, P.P. (2020). Electronic medical records in the American health system: challenges and lessons learned. Ciência & saúde coletiva, 25(4):1293-1304.
- Klumpp, T.R. (2013). Electronic medical records and quality of cancer care. Current Oncology Report, 15(6), 588-594.
- Shenoy, A. & Appel J.M. (2017). Safeguarding confidentiality in electronic health records. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 26(2), 337-341.
- Stanhope, V., & Matthews, E.B. (2019). Delivering person-centered care with an electronic health record. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 19(1), 168.
- Tsai, J. & Bond, G. (2008). A comparison of electronic records to paper records in mental health centers. International Journal for Quality in Health Care: Journal of the International Society for Quality in Health Care, 20(2), 136-143.
- Walsh, K.E., Secor, J.L., Matsumura, J.S., Schwarze, M.L., Potter, B.E., Newcomer, P., Kim, M.K., & Bartels, C.M. (2018). Secure provider-to-provider communication with electronic health record messaging: An educational outreach study. Journal for Healthcare Quality: Official publication of the National Association for Healthcare Quality, 40(5), 283–291.
- What are electronic health records (EHRs)? HealthIT.gov. https://www.healthit.gov/topic/health-it-and-health-information-exchange-basics/what-are-electronic-health-records-ehrs