EMR vs. EHR: What’s the difference?

If you’re involved in health care at any level, you’ve likely heard the terms electronic health record (EHR) and electronic medical record (EMR) used interchangeably.

You may have even wondered, “What, exactly, is the difference?” While the terms and the general understanding of this technological innovation are now a part of nearly every provider’s repertoire, a couple things have become apparent:

1. there is a dilution of the true definitions of “EMR” and “EHR,” because there is actually some variance between these two types of systems, and
2. there’s a lack of easily accessible and well-documented resources to help the healthcare community better understand EHRs and EMRs—and how they are evolving.

Let’s change that by briefly reviewing the history and use of these systems.

A brief history of documentation
Historically, healthcare providers documented all patient information on paper and stored it in paper charts. When EMRs came along, however, they made it possible to document and store that information electronically. Early EMRs were considered mostly “medical”—something clinicians used for diagnosis and treatment. However since then, much has changed.

EHRs have emerged as systems that capture not only patients’ medical records, but also information related to their general health and well-being. These platforms are designed to go beyond merely streamlining patient data collection and storage in a single facility; they can also share that information with other healthcare providers, thus fostering care team collaboration. The technological evolution of EHRs was bolstered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which introduced Meaningful Use—a program that incentivized the use of EHR systems with certain features and capabilities.

The concurrent evolution of EMRs and EHRs
However, thanks to healthcare reform efforts that are shifting the entire industry toward a more collaborative care environment—one demanding interoperability—EMRs and EHRs now share many similarities (e.g., they both house digital records of important patient information, and they both seamlessly exchange relevant data with other systems). Most EMRs and EHRs on the market today also provide practitioners with practice management tools, such as billing, outcomes tracking, compliance alerts, and analytics.

No matter what category a particular system falls into, its functionality is what’s really important. Going forward, interoperability among software systems will prove critical, and as EMRs and EHRs grow increasingly alike, companies will be better able to consolidate and integrate their systems. And that’s a good thing, because for many providers—especially those in niche fields—specialty EMRs with interoperability functionality may actually be better than large-scale, generalist EHRs. After all, the more specific a system is, the more effectively it caters to the needs of specialty providers—and that leads to truly optimized workflows. And when such systems can still integrate with overarching parent systems—like hospital EHRs—it’s a win-win.

EMRs and EHRs have been at the forefront of many important healthcare discussions over the past several years, and they will continue to play an integral role in advancing the entire industry toward value-based, patient-centered care. All healthcare software systems—regardless of size, type, or setting—must contend with the challenge of keeping up with the pace of healthcare change.

Nancy Ham is CEO of Phoenix-based software company WebPT, the country's leading rehab therapy platform for enhancing patient care and fueling business growth, with more than 68,000 members and 9,600 clinics as customers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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