EHR vs. EMR—What’s the Difference?

By: and on October 27, 2020

About a decade ago, people weren’t aware of what an electronic medical record (EMR) or electronic health record (EHR) meant or the key differences between the two systems. And today, there are still some who use the acronyms interchangeably—this can lead you to accidentally purchase EMR or EHR software that doesn’t offer the full set of features that you need.

Due to new technology requirements and federal regulations, it’s become very important for medical providers to know and understand the differences between these two types of medical record keeping systems.

Very simply put, an electronic medical record is more of a basic system that will not meet many federal mandates, while an electronic health record is more robust feature wise and will help you achieve standards for Medicare reimbursement.

Before we move on, it’s important to note: You can’t determine whether a software provider is an EMR or an EHR based on its name alone. Many providers use the terms interchangeably—others start as EMRs and then evolve into more robust EHRs.

EHR vs. EMR: The difference is in the definition

The basic purpose of both electronic medical records software and electronic health records software are the same—documentation. But HealthIT Buzz, a blog by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), defines them in a little more detail.

What is an electronic medical record system?

EMRs hold digitized versions of paperwork in a clinician’s office. They contain the treatment and medical history of your patients.

EMRs help you track historical data, identify patients who are due for checkups, keep a check on patients’ health levels (such as blood pressure or vaccinations), and monitor and improve the quality of care in the practice.

However, transferring data from an EMR system is anything but easy; patient records have to be printed or mailed for consultations.

What is an electronic health record system?

An EHR system offers more functions than EMRs as they focus on a patient’s total health. With an EHR, you’ll have access not only to the standard clinical data but a broader view of the care being provided.

EHRs facilitate sharing data outside the practice with another healthcare provider, such as laboratories and specialists. Therefore, EHRs record information from all the clinicians involved in the patient’s care. Essentially, an EHR is an EMR with interoperability (i.e., it integrates with other providers’ systems).

Based on these definitions, you may already be thinking EHRs are the clear choice for you. That might be the case, but don’t make that decision just yet. First, it’s worth doing a more in-depth comparison of the features offered in each system.

EHR vs. EMR: Compare features before making a decision

Both EHRs and EMRs include functionality to support patient records, including fields for practitioners to input things such as medical history, diagnoses, medications, immunization dates, allergies, etc.

For many practices, that might be plenty to support the specialty or services they offer. For others, having the additional features offered by an EHR system is a necessity.

Feature EHRs EMRs
Create and update patient records
Track a patient’s medical history
Lab data  
Imaging results  
Demographic data  

If your practice needs to qualify for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, you’re one of the many who needs an EHR. This is because of the new standards put forth by the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (affectionately referred to as MACRA).

In order for any practice to qualify for Medicare reimbursement, they must be using an interoperable EHR in order to make health information immediately accessible to other authorized providers, even those at another practice or health care organization.

EHR vs. EMR: Which one works for you?

Despite the clear difference in features between EHRs and EMRs, the terminology used to describe these two systems is still somewhat muddled.

The important thing when considering EHR or EMR software for your own practice is to do your due diligence and make absolutely sure you’re buying the kind of system that will meet your needs. Your best bet is to examine a system’s features and look for an ONC-ATCB certification to determine which type of system you’re looking at.

In the end, whether you select an EMR or EHR should depend on what you think your organization’s needs are after you take a look at your existing systems. Fulfilling these requirements should help your practice increase return on investment (ROI) and improve the incentives received from payers.

As a provider, you’ll likely make your decision based on your information technology (IT) budget and the stage of your career. If you’re a new physician, you will almost certainly want to lay the IT foundation for participating in the future vision for health care integration, which means going with an EHR. You will likely be supported in this effort by your health system, especially if they accept Medicare.

Meanwhile, if you’re a more established physician who wants to “go paperless,” but is not an aggressive adopter of IT and who has no need to meet MACRA requirements, you may opt for a standalone EMR system and forgo the costs and challenges of integration.

In the end, whatever you choose, you’ll begin a progressive and highly beneficial adoption of health care technologies.

Are you needing help determining whether you need an EHR or an EMR? We’ll help you find the right software for your needs and budget in 15 minutes or less. Schedule a call or click here to chat with a software advisor now for free.

You may also like:

New Medical Practice Checklist: How To Get Started

3 EHR Selection Criteria for Your Independent Practice

The Four Fundamental Functions of Interoperability in Healthcare

Compare EHR and EMR Software