Electronic Medical Records (EMR) and Electronic Health Records (EHR): What’s the Difference?

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If you sometimes struggle to understand the difference between Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), know that you are not alone. It is a topic Telehealth.org has had to return to from time to time, as in the article Finally! Easy Q&As about Electronic Health Records (EHR) for Mental Health. Part of the confusion comes from how quickly both have become integral to the healthcare process. In only a decade, American hospitals’ use of EHRs has increased 20%. Ten years ago, less than 75% of hospitals used them. Now, in 2021, 93% percent utilize EHRs.

Aside from a rapid growth rate in the market, another reason for the confusion between the two terms is that EMRs and EHRs share many similarities. At their core, they both store patient/client data, including diagnoses, progress notes, procedure codes, etc. 

The Rising Importance of EHRs and EMRs

EMRs and EHRs are becoming pivotal to clients’ and patients’ ability to access their own records through patient portals. New regulations from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued in April and July of this year required patients and clients be allowed to digitally download their own EHR onto their smartphones.

Electronic records that do not meet CMS’s guidelines may face reduced payments until they achieve technological certification. It is important to note that HIPAA is also busily issuing stiff penalties for health groups that fail to allow access to records in a timely manner. See:

The Biggest Difference

When it comes down to it, there is one key difference between Electronic Health Records and Electronic Medical Records. Simply put, EMRs provide data internally within a single entity, be it hospital, clinic, agency, practice, or other healthcare business. As HealthIT.gov summarizes, “EMRs are digital versions of paper charts.” If you can recall the visits to your clinician when they used manilla folders to hold notes, that is now being replaced by  EMRs. It is held in-house and not shared with other groups.

EHRs, by contrast, are shared across several entities. An EHR contains the same sort of information as an EMR—diagnostic information, clinical notes, treatments utilized—but travels from one hospital, clinic, agency, or practice to another. EHRs allow for digital transferring from a primary care doctor to a specialist, such as a behavioral health professional (you). EHRs increase the speed with which each practitioner seeing a client receives documentation and up-to-date material, and facilitate better collaboration between the entities.

The Three Additional Ways to Differentiate Electronic Health Records and Electronic Medical Records

Three further differences flow out of the above-mentioned distinction between EHRs and EMRs. They are:

  • Interoperability- This is the official term for EHR’s shareability across systems and with different entities. It involves the ability of one software package to be read by a variety of devices, such as laptops, desktops, smartphones, etc. When data is entered into the software from one device, it shows up in data being read at another location using a different device. This functionality gives EHR a higher level of versatility, allowing it to be a vehicle for everything from medication management to results analysis.
  • Accessibility- As noted above, EHRs are now capable of being downloaded and “carried” by clients or patients themselves. EMRs, on the other hand, are not. The same standards of protection that allow the sharing of EHRs between entities also allow the healthcare consumer direct digital access to their records.
  • Security- The things that make EHRs so useful also make them appetizing as a target for cybercriminals seeking healthcare data. Additionally, their portability makes them more vulnerable to attack. What keeps EMRs limited in scope and shareability also keeps them fairly safe.

When Does It Make Sense to Use EHRs or EMRs?

Large entities, such as hospitals, will tend to use EHRs, and small entities such as a private practice doctor seem a more natural fit for an EMR. In broad strokes, that all tracks. However, both entities big and small can and should utilize both. For example, a primary care physician or small practice of a few clinicians will likely have to refer clients/patients to outside resources for services if they cannot be provided in-house. An EHR makes this process significantly easier than endless copying and transport from one practice setting to another.

On the other hand, EMRs can help track a patient or client’s progress with a single entity within the larger system. For instance, consider a client that visits you for therapy, a psychiatrist, and a physical therapist in a single system to deal with the result of an accident. The EHR will be key to getting separate practitioners to work in harmony with each other. However, an EMR can help you follow the client’s or patient’s progress within just one a therapeutic setting. Rather than having to access a large digital collection of data, an EMR only contains relevant information from within a setting or entity. It is a digital improvement for keeping records.

Your decision about using either Electronic Health Records or Electronic Medical Records should be based on a needs analysis, the size of your practice setting, and how often you need to interact with other clinicians and/or clients and patients who request access to their records.

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Erika Shell Castro
Erika Shell Castro
1 year ago

How many health systems are integrating Language Access into the EHR?

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