Only a few decades ago, paper-based frameworks dominated healthcare communication. At the time, data exchange was primarily by fax, snail mail, and manual transfers. This paper trail sometimes led to days or weeks of delay to access valuable health information between providers.
Fast forward a few years, and the healthcare record-keeping system has experienced a seismic shift in structure, operations, and efficiency. This is no small part due to the digitized representation of medical information using electronic health records (EHRs). EHRs are almost synonymous with official medical documents across hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, and other health providers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2021, around 88.2% (9 in 10) of office-based physicians used some EHR system for operations.
This guide will explore why EHRs are a vital part of clinical workflows and how these systems promote patient-based care. We’ll also examine the link between EHRs and electronic medical records (EMRs), and the different ways these record systems transform healthcare.
EHRs are a one-stop shop for clinical and administrative patient information. These records hold everything from a patient’s demographic information, to important medical information, including:
Compared to paper-based systems, where records were spread out across filing cabinets in different physician offices — EHRs centralize patient medical history into a readily accessible and shareable digital format.
For context, a primary care physician, endocrinologist, cardiologist, and pulmonologist could all be involved in one patient’s care without skipping a beat on the other’s progress with care. Since EHR systems collect, store, and update information from individual provider encounters, these professionals are updated on prescribed medication, lab, and imaging results, plus other required medical records. The EHR framework was developed to answer the limitations of paper records and manual filing systems, while providing a bird’s eye view of a patient’s medical history and current health status.
EHR systems also look out for patients, while centering them in their care. Using portals connected to EHR systems, patients can access personal medical records and communicate securely with providers for a more active role in their health outcomes. EHRs made their first appearance within hospitals and government organizations around the 1970s, but it wasn't until 2004, when the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) of Health Information was made, that a widespread need for electronic health records was officially recognized. To encourage mass adoption of this system, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), was created in 2009 to promote financial and other incentives for healthcare systems to adopt EHRs into workflows.
At present, there are over 500 vendors of EHR technology in the United States alone. Big names like Epic, athenahealth, Cerner, and Allscripts are central databases for providers to access and manage patient information.
Electronic health records are the primary resource for storing patient information across healthcare systems. But more than that, this software introduces an interactive structure to health records, permitting interoperability across relevant health players. EHRs are a staple feature of many clinical and healthcare settings for this benefit. But while common, this is not to say every hospital, pharmacy, lab, or physician with an EHR system has a specially built network.
The thing is, EHR systems are an expensive venture, not just in financial measures, but in the manpower required to maintain operations. Instead, healthcare providers share their patient and administrative records with authorized vendor systems like athenahealth, Epic, and Cerner to store and exchange health data. Likewise, modern EHRs like Medplum are trusted alternatives in the space, and are redefining the landscape of healthcare infrastructure, through an open-source approach. These networks ensure EHRs fulfill their purpose as interconnected databases of medical records.
Integrated EHR systems then participate in health information exchanges (HIEs) like CommonWell and Carequality — fan favorites here at Metriport — to create a network of healthcare data. Hospitals may enter patient encounters into their EHR systems, or import data from authorized sources using products like Metriport's Medical API. Likewise, patients may directly contribute to health records by entering their health data into patient portals or apps integrated with EHR systems. EHRs can communicate and exchange information seamlessly because of improved efforts to promote data uniformity using standards like HL7 FHIR and SMART Health IT across healthcare systems.
It depends on who you ask — for some, electronic health records and electronic medical records are one and the same thing. But, others may differentiate between both record systems according to purpose and shareability.
EHRs are digital versions of a patient’s health record. In contrast, EMRs represent a digitized form of everything in a paper chart, and are not designed for sharing outside of a medical setting. Also, while providers use EMRs within health facilities to diagnose and treat patients, EHRs encourage information exchange among relevant players, and are specially configured for integration with third-party software to promote clinical decision making.
Electronic health records have proven to be perhaps the most important introduction to the medical space. This record system steers the ultimate goals of care delivery: safety, efficiency, and improved outcomes. By ensuring a comprehensive collection of patient records, EHRs help to reduce medical errors and provide accurate patient information at the point of care. As a result, providers also dispense safer care, and can effectively diagnose patients, reducing the chances of costly errors. A national survey of doctors reported around 75% of providers consider EHRs responsible for improving patient care.
Beyond its primary role of documentation, EHRs also take workflows and patient care to new heights. Qualified EHRs can alert authorized players to potential interactions when prescribing a new medication, and can identify safety lapses before they occur. EHRs are also crucial for assessing the future of healthcare. These systems promote research and better population health management by simplifying the process of tracking data and analyzing population health records for trends, or disease outbreaks.
Electronic health records continue to transform organizational efficiency and patient outcomes across the healthcare ecosystem. This software is an essential need across medical settings for its undeniable value in promoting medical and administrative workflows.
Metriport offers the first open-source API for healthcare data, encouraging seamless data access and retrieval between EHRs and vital healthcare applications like clinical decision support tools.