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The terms electronic medical record (EMR) and electronic health record (EHR) are often used interchangeably. However, an EMR and an EHR serve different purposes, despite sharing certain characteristics. Understanding the EMR vs. the EHR is important to the success of your technology investment and your practice.

One letter makes a huge difference

Both an EMR and EHR are digital records of patient health information. At first glance, it might seem that Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) and Electronic Health Records (EHRs) are just two sides of the same digital coin. However, a single letter in each acronym makes a world of difference in their functionality and impact.

An EMR serves as a digital version of a patient's chart, containing their medical and treatment history within a specific medical practice. It essentially mirrors the traditional paper medical records but in a digital format. Importantly, EMRs tend to stay within the confines of a single healthcare provider's office and are not easily shared.

When patients switch doctors or facilities, their EMRs often remain isolated and inaccessible to the new healthcare provider. In contrast, an EHR is a more comprehensive, interconnected system that combines records from multiple healthcare providers and institutions. It offers a holistic, long-term view of a patient's health, including demographics, test results, medical history, history of present illness (HPI), and medications. An EHR goes beyond being an isolated record; it is designed to follow the patient wherever they seek medical care, fostering collaboration among healthcare providers and enhancing the continuity of care.

Which is better: EHR or EMR?

In the realm of healthcare technology, both EMRs and EHRs serve essential roles in making healthcare more efficient and cost-effective. However, if your goal is to transcend basic clinical data and focus on enhancing the overall health and well-being of your patients, embracing an EHR solution is the way forward. Understanding the difference between EMRs and EHRs empowers healthcare professionals to make informed choices that can lead to better patient care, improved outcomes, and a more streamlined practice. As technology continues to shape the healthcare landscape, staying informed and making strategic decisions about health IT investments will be critical to the success of your medical practice and the well-being of your patients. 

What is an EHR?

In short, an EHR stands for Electronic Health Record. It's a digital version of a patient's medical records, incorporating many records that were once documented on paper. An EHR contains comprehensive, up-to-date information about a patient’s health and medical history. It typically includes details like medical diagnoses, medications, allergies, immunization records, lab test results, treatment plans, and other relevant information to providers.

Why move away from traditional paper records?

There are several advantages specific to EHRs. They provide legible and organized documentation, reduce the risk of errors, support clinical decision-making with notifications and reminders, enable electronic prescribing, and allow for easier retrieval and analysis of patient data. EHRs also contribute to population health management and quality improvement initiatives by facilitating data collection and analysis on a large scale.

Important features of an EHR:

  • Accessibility - Authorized providers can access a patient's EHR, electronically from different locations facilitating coordinated and timely care.
  • Interoperability - EHR systems enable the exchange of health information between different healthcare organizations, allowing for better care coordination across providers and settings.
  • Decision support - EHRs often include features like clinical decision support systems, which provide notifications, reminders, and evidence-based guidelines to assist providers in making informed decisions about patient care.
  • Continuity of care - EHRs provide a longitudinal view of a patient's health history, ensuring that providers have access to accurate and complete information for effective diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care.
  • Patient engagement - Some EHR systems include patient portals that allow individuals to access their health records, pay bills, communicate with their healthcare providers, schedule appointments, and manage their healthcare online.

The goal:

An EHR system that works seamlessly across the entire organization—EHR, Practice Management (PM), interoperability, patient self-scheduling, virtual visits, check-in, documentation, check-out, billing, etc. is ideal.

Advantages of an EHR

The advantages of EHRs extend far beyond convenience. They play a pivotal role in transforming healthcare:

  • Seamless information flow - EHRs enable patient information to travel with them, allowing different healthcare providers to access and contribute to the same record. This seamless flow of data enhances patient care and reduces the risk of medical errors.
  • Informed decision making - EHRs offer clinicians a comprehensive view of a patient's medical history, ensuring that they make informed decisions and create tailored care plans. This leads to more effective treatment and better health outcomes.
  • Regulatory compliance - EHRs aim to meet criteria set by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), making healthcare organizations eligible for incentive programs. Compliance with federal and state government regulations is crucial in today's healthcare landscape.
  • Government support - Federal and state governments actively promote EHR adoption through policies, requirements, and incentive programs. This support reflects the growing recognition of the benefits of EHR technology in improving healthcare quality and efficiency.

How do I implement a new EHR?

An EHR (Electronic Health Record) not only streamlines administrative processes but also enhances patient care by providing access to comprehensive and up-to-date patient information. However, implementing a new EHR system can feel like a challenging endeavor. To ensure a successful transition, healthcare organizations must follow best practices that take into account their unique needs and requirements.

Strategic planning and needs assessment

Before diving into the implementation process, it's essential to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. Start by assessing your organization's specific needs, objectives, and workflows. Involve key stakeholders, including clinicians, IT staff, administrators, and compliance officers, to gain a deep understanding of the current processes and identify areas that need improvement. Set specific and measurable goals that can be used to gauge the success of your project and to which you can hold a vendor accountable. (These might include clinical and financial goals, staff and patient satisfaction as well as many others).

Vendor selection and system evaluation

Choosing the right EHR vendor is a critical decision. Conduct thorough research and evaluate multiple EHR systems to find one that aligns with your organization's requirements. Look for a vendor with a proven track record, excellent customer support, and a commitment to data security and compliance with healthcare regulations.

Engage stakeholders early and continuously

Engage stakeholders from various departments throughout the entire implementation process. Their input is invaluable for designing workflows that fit seamlessly with their roles and responsibilities. Assure that the subject matter experts (physicians, nurses, and others) are allotted specific time to spend on the EHR project and have leadership responsibilities.

Customization and workflow design

Tailor the EHR system to suit your organization's unique workflows and preferences. While it's tempting to replicate existing processes, this is an opportunity to streamline operations and eliminate inefficiencies. Involve clinicians and other end-users in designing workflows to ensure that the system enhances rather than hinders their daily tasks.

Compliance and data security

Ensure that the EHR system complies with all relevant healthcare regulations. Implement robust security measures to protect patient data and ensure strict access controls. Conduct regular audits to identify and address vulnerabilities.

Comprehensive training programs

Adequate training is crucial to the success of EHR implementation. Develop a comprehensive training program that caters to users of varying levels of technical expertise. Training should include not only how to use the system but also best practices for maintaining data accuracy and patient privacy.

Data migration and integration

Plan for a smooth transition of data from existing systems to the new EHR. This process can be complex and time-consuming, so be sure to allocate sufficient resources and expertise. Additionally, consider integrating the EHR with other healthcare systems, such as laboratory systems or billing software, to facilitate data exchange and interoperability.

Testing and quality assurance

Thoroughly test the EHR system before going live. Identify and address any issues, bugs, or compatibility problems during the testing phase. Create contingency plans and conduct disaster recovery drills to prepare for unforeseen issues that may arise during implementation.

Go-live strategy

Develop a well-thought-out go-live strategy that includes a phased rollout. Start with a smaller group of users and gradually expand to the entire organization. Provide additional support and resources during the initial weeks of implementation to address any challenges that may arise.

Ongoing support and maintenance

EHR implementation doesn't end with the go-live date. Establish a dedicated support team to address user inquiries, troubleshoot issues, and provide ongoing training. Regularly assess the system's performance (referencing the original measurable goals initially set) and make necessary updates to optimize its functionality.

Implementing a new EHR system is a significant undertaking, but with careful planning and adherence to best practices, healthcare organizations can reap the benefits of improved patient care, streamlined operations, and enhanced data security.

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Roy Gill Headshot

Roy Gill, MD, FAMIA

VP, Clinical Affairs and Patient Safety at NextGen Healthcare

I joined NextGen in 2009, working first as a Physician Consultant, Director of Clinical Content under the Chief Medical Officer, and now as Vice President of Clinical Affairs and Patient Safety. A Family Physician by training with nearly 20 year of practice experience, I became interested in Clinical Informatics (CI) in the late 1990's as my institution was adopting an EHR. I became a Physician Champion and began to dive even deeper into Informatics. I eventually earned a Graduate Certificate in CI from Oregon Health and Science University and became Board Certified in CI in 2015 (as well as earning a Six Sigma Black Belt somewhere along the way). It's an exciting time to be working at NextGen, as we vastly improve attention to improving outcomes, patient safety, client needs, quality, and the evolving needs of our clinicians and the industry.