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Since the beginning of time, mankind has been driven to understand and heal the human body. Egyptian inscriptions dating back to 2500 BC tell the story of healers using medicine—although most illnesses were thought to be of divine, not scientific, origin. During the first five centuries AD, physicians studied the nervous system, the brain, the blood, and even the possible existence of germs. And in the early days of the 20th century, different human blood types were first discovered. Just a few years ago, the first human liver was grown from stem cells. We wouldn’t know about all of these remarkable discoveries if no one had taken the time to record this scientific progress—on stone tablets, papyrus, and paper. Today, we continue to make scientific breakthroughs every day, and because we keep track of information electronically, we can not only see progress on individual humans but on groups of people with electronic record keeping.
Enter the twenty-first century. As Earth’s population continues to increase across the globe, the days when a family doctor could remember each patient’s medical history is long gone. We rely on technology to keep track of births, deaths, vaccines, and each person’s complete medical history.
These medical records are referred to as EMRs (Electronic Medical Records) and EHRs (Electronic Health Records).
Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration offered financial incentives to doctors and hospitals demonstrating meaningful use of EHRs. According to HealthIT.gov, the goals of meaningful use compliance are:
Despite the incentives—and the likely benefits to patients and doctors—around 20 percent* of practitioners are not yet on board with electronic recordkeeping. These holdouts give various reasons for not using electronic systems for health and medical records. From cost, to implementation, to learning curves.
That means that more than 80 percent of doctors and hospitals have implemented electronic medical and health records. Although the terms EMR and EHR are often used interchangeably, there are technically significant differences. Let’s take a look at the similarities, the differences, and how they work together to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes.
An EMR is essentially a digital version of a single patient’s medical chart. The EMR is primarily used by providers for diagnosis and treatment. It includes:
Specific medical information is at the heart of an EMR. An effective EMR streamlines the charting process by learning provider preferences over time and making smart suggestions about diagnosis and treatment based on historical data. The EMR stores patient data over time, allowing providers quick access to important information that may affect treatment. It also serves as a legal record of an office visit.
An EMR effectively eliminates paper charts. Although EMR use is generally restricted to intra-office communication, it can be shared with other clinics, labs, or service providers.
If an EMR is a snapshot of a patient’s medical history, the EHR is the whole movie.
EHRs are reliant on EMRs and are essentially built over time, pulling in all the data about a patient’s medical history, including:
This feature film of a patient’s medical record is fluid, repeatedly updated with each healthcare touchpoint. With the constant changes and the inclusion of more and more records, the benefits of EHRs will increase for both patients and practitioners.
Shareability is the greatest strength and benefit of electronic health records. On-demand access to patients’ EHRs helps inform decisions and coordinate care—benefitting both providers and their patients.
A patient’s EHR provides critical data across all providers simultaneously, giving them on-demand access to this data via a computer, tablet, or phone from anywhere in the world. Not only is this information instantly available, but it contains the most current individual healthcare records.
More often than not, a patient is under the care of multiple authorized providers, all who track their history and other relevant patient health information. In situations where doctors from different clinics or even geographic locations are collaborating on a patient’s care, sharing information can be critical to determining the optimal treatment course for the best possible outcome.
When providers can receive lab results and x-rays electronically and store them electronically, patient data is much easier to manage and retrieve, enabling better patient care.
EMRs can increase the accuracy of patient data. Paper records can be easily lost or misplaced, and when information is copied from one form to another by staff, it’s easy to make mistakes or leave forms incomplete. Because EMRs are automated, many routine tasks associated with charting, ordering tests, and billing access existing data, reducing the need for duplicate entry and eliminating inconsistencies.
EHRs make it possible for healthcare providers and practitioners to transfer data quickly and securely. Data can be shared not only among various doctors or clinics but between departments—especially important in medical situations where time is critical.
Clinic staff can be more productive when providers and other service providers communicate seamlessly through technology. When appointments are scheduled, orders are sent, and insurance claims submitted, more data is added to the record making patient data quick and easy to access when doctors, nurses, and other care providers need it to make critical decisions. Patients and doctors can access accurate records to have conversations about medical history and prior procedures without relying on memories or contacting other care providers.
In the end, providing the best care for patients is the highest priority. Through the use of EHRs, doctors and other healthcare service providers are better informed with full access to a patient’s comprehensive medical records. With up-to-date patient data about previous medical conditions and injuries, lab and test results, and ongoing health issues, doctors are better equipped to provide accurate diagnoses, recommend effective treatment, and follow-up as needed.
Patients are the biggest winners when it comes to electronic medical records.
A patient’s EHR is a comprehensive record of their medical care. When doctors have access to this cache of information, it empowers their choices about how best to treat short-term illness, chronic disease and everything in between—resulting in a better outcome. Of all the ways EHRs benefit patients, this is number one. But it isn’t the only reason EHRs make sense.
Because patients have full access to their records, they too can access the information they need to make better healthcare choices. There’s no need to worry about changing providers, visiting a provider while traveling, or visiting an urgent care when a primary care provider is unavailable. Transferring and accessing electronic records is quick and secure.
Communication is easier when both patient and providers have full access to all the information. The availability of timelines, treatment details, the effectiveness of specific medications, and a broad overview of mental, physical, and emotional health helps to effectively guide the healthcare journey.
In situations where quick decisions are a matter of life and death, access to a patient’s EMR gives doctors the data they need to make the right choices quickly and with confidence.
Technology is no longer something separate from our everyday lives, but instead, something that is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. There is perhaps no better use of technology than improving the way we deliver medical care. If we are to see the transformations that are possible across every sector of the healthcare industry, we must face a few challenges and find solutions.
Interoperability is one of the biggest bridges yet to cross. From doctor to patient and lab to hospital, technology must improve the way our devices and systems communicate. EHRs must be designed to work together for the good of the community. Interoperability standards and the implementation of best practices and standards will continue to guide healthcare and medical technology toward this overarching goal.
The fine line between EMRs and EHRs is ambiguous—many EMRs record some of the same information as EHRs. Others are specifically an electronic chart. Advancing technology and increased participation by patients and providers will continue to change the way healthcare is delivered and foster even more innovation.
As medical records become increasingly digitized, the development of a comprehensive, secure health information exchange (HIE) will provide the healthcare community data needed to identify trends, trace the efficacy of new treatments and medications, share successes, collaborate, and improve healthcare for all.