Jul 29 2021

EMRs vs. EHRs: What’s the Difference?

Both electronic medical records and electronic health records offer value for healthcare organizations, but what sets these technologies apart?

Electronic medical record and electronic health record adoption is on the rise — 93 percent of American hospitals now use EHRs, up from just 73 percent 10 years ago. Legislation is similarly evolving to meet increased digital demand: New regulations likely to take effect in 2022 will allow patients to download their EHRs onto digital devices, and healthcare facilities must now ensure that any electronic record system meets CMS certified technology guidelines or risk downward payment adjustments.

The result? In an evolving compliance and operational landscape, it’s easy for healthcare organizations to conflate EMR and EHR frameworks because both serve the same basic function. In fact, there are significant differences between these two medical record systems.

What Is an Electronic Medical Record (EMR)?

An electronic medical record is used by one organization to store data about a patient.

Neisa Jenkins, professor at the College of Health Sciences at DeVry University and president of the Georgia Health Information Management Association, defines an EMR as an electronic record that contains information about an individual or specific patient within a single healthcare organization. This information — including health, demographic and financial data — is created and accessed by clinical and nonclinical staff. In practice, this means that EMRs are typically nontransferable between practices.

“An EMR is restricted to a single medical practice,” says Neil Lappage, public sector solutions lead at ITC Secure and adviser for ISACA’s Emerging Technology Advisory Group. “If such information had to be sent to another practice, it would likely be sent in paper form and, depending on the type of practice, the information could contain both clinician notes and diagnostic information.”

READ MORE: Learn how to manage healthcare IT integration during an M&A deal.

What Is an Electronic Health Record (EHR)?

An electronic health record is shared between organizations.

“An EHR is an electronic record that contains information about an individual or specific patient within an enterprise healthcare system that consists of more than one organization,” says Jenkins.

As noted by Lappage, “EHRs contain information about a patient throughout their journey visiting different healthcare practices. They combine both diagnostic information on patients and notes from medical clinicians. EHRs also improve patient-centered care. Due to the speed that results are shared between clinicians, decisions can be made more quickly, and the patient ultimately experiences smoother transition and response times from medical practices.”

EHRs vs. EMRs: What’s the Difference?

While the primary distinction between these two record types is that EHRs are shared among organizations while EMRs are not, Lappage and Jenkins point to other key differentiators, including:

  • Interoperability: “An EHR communicates with other systems,” says Jenkins, “which is a concept known as interoperability. EHRs are multifunctional and used for everything from documentation and medication management to clinical decision support, reporting and analytics, and results management.”
  • Accessibility: Accessibility is another key difference between EHRs and EMRs. While EHRs are accessible by patients — and will soon be available for digital download — EMRs are not. This availability stems from EHR interoperability, which in turn requires records standardization. As noted by Lappage, “there is now a need for systems to talk in common formats. This is where integration standards such as Health Level 7 (HL7) come in since they use a standardized format to send data.”
  • Security: “From a cybersecurity perspective, an EHR is a much more valuable target,” says Lappage, “since it contains the entire journey of a patient as they move between practices. Where the stakes get higher is through the accessibility of such information. Due to the nature of EMRs not being accessible to patients, it also means they are much harder to access by adversaries trying to steal information.” EHRs, meanwhile, offer a tempting target for attackers looking to obtain information-rich healthcare data they can ransom, steal or sell.

DIVE DEEPER: Find out how to improve clinical satisfaction with the EHR.

Which Type of Medical Record Is Right for Your Healthcare Organization?

Both EMRs and EHRs offer value for healthcare organizations. In many cases, both types are used within a single medical practice depending on the nature and purpose of the patient data recorded.

For example, while hospitals and larger health enterprises typically use EHRs to provide a comprehensive view of patient care, they may also opt for EMRs to track specific patient data over time to help create patient-specific health plans. EHRs, meanwhile, are ideal for facilitating data sharing across multiple levels of a healthcare organization — from emergency room doctors and nurses to specialists and management teams — without increasing operational complexity.

Neil Lappage
Because healthcare is a team effort that is not delivered by a single healthcare professional or practice, sharing information about patients between practices in a secure way will ultimately deliver improved outcomes and patient-centered care.”

Neil Lappage Public Sector Solutions Lead, ITC Secure

For individual practices, EMRs offer the easiest bar for entry into digital data collection. HealthIT.gov puts it simply: “EMRs are digital versions of paper charts.” Digitizing key data makes it easier to store, retrieve and access while simultaneously limiting the amount of duplicated data recorded and reducing the risk of inaccurate data capture. EHRs also offer value for smaller practices that regularly refer patients to specialists or other clinics. The interoperable nature of EHRs can significantly reduce the amount of time and effort required by administrative staff to ensure transferred records are easily accessible.

Bottom line? EHRs and EMRs both offer significant value for healthcare practices. While EMRs focus on single-patient, single-practice data, EHRs are built for interoperability. As a result, finding the right fit is about function rather than form. Both individual practices and multinational health enterprises can benefit from both types under the right circumstances.

“Because healthcare is a team effort that is not delivered by a single healthcare professional or practice,” says Lappage, “sharing information about patients between practices in a secure way will ultimately deliver improved outcomes and patient-centered care.”

Pornpak Khunatorn/Getty Images

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.