EHR vs. EMR—What’s the Difference?

By: on April 26, 2019

About a decade ago, people weren’t aware of what EMR or EHR meant or the key differences between the two. And today there are still some who use the acronyms interchangeably—which can lead physicians to accidentally purchase software that doesn’t offer the features they really need.

And they do need a lot of features. Thanks to the way technology has progressed and medical practitioners have embraced technology as a core part of health care, medical software has simplified the most complex processes and needs of these practitioners.

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

Very simply put, electronic medical records (EMRs) are more basic systems that will not meet many federal mandates, while electronic health records (EHRs) are more feature-robust 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 started as EMRs and then evolved into more robust EHRs. Your best bet is to examine features and look for ONC-ATCB certification to determine which type of system you’re looking at.

EHR vs. EMR: The difference is in the definition

The basic purpose of both electronic medical records and electronic health records are the same—documentation. But HealthIT Buzz, a blog by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) (an entity under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) defines them in a little more detail:

What are EMRs?

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

EMRs help clinicians 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 out of the practice from EMRs is anything but easy; patient records have to be printed or mailed for consultations.

What are EHRs?

EHRs offer more functions than EMRs as they focus on a patient’s total health, not just the standard clinical data but a broader view of the care being provided.

They facilitate sharing data outside the practice with other health care providers, 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 v.s EMR: Compare features before making a decision

Both EHRs and EMRs include functionality to support patient records, including fields for practitioners to input things like medical histories, 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 EHRs is a necessity.

Feature: EHRs EMRs
Create and update patient records
Track patient histories
Lab data
Imaging results
Demographic data

If your practice needs to qualify for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, you’re one of the ones 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 be able to make health information immediately accessible to other authorized providers, even those at other practices or health organizations.

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 muddied.

The important thing when considering software for your own practices is to do due diligence and make absolutely sure you’re buying the kind of system that will meet your needs.

In the end, whether you select an EMR or EHR should depend on how you map your organization’s requirements and assess the existing systems. The selection of a medical records system can be considered based on the following criteria:

  • Adherence to the latest interoperability certification standards (as per the nonprofit Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society [HIMSS])
  • Adoption of a unique workflow that matches your practice and specialty
  • Maximum usability at the point of care

Fulfilling these requirements should help your practice increase ROI and improve the incentives received from payers.

Most providers will make their decisions based on their IT budget and their career stage. A young physician will almost certainly want to lay the IT foundation for participating in the future vision for healthcare interoperability, which means going with an EHR. They will likely be supported in this effort by their health system, especially if they accept Medicare.

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

In the end, these individual decisions underlie what is a progressive, and highly beneficial, adoption of health care technologies.

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