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Electronic health records (EHRs) hold the promise of transforming the health care industry. Over the past few decades they have gained significant momentum with advances in computer technology, evidence of improved quality and efficiency of care, and incentive programs that lower the barriers to adoption and standardization. The health care sector, along with other industries, now accepts that computer technology is an essential part of its future.

The terms electronic medical records (EMRs) and electronic health records (EHRs) are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different.

  • The electronic medical record (EMR) is a digital version of a patient's paper chart in a provider's office. The EMR contains the patient's medical history, diagnoses, provider notes, medications, lab results, and preventive screening. It has distinct advantages over a paper-based chart in that it allows for easier trending of data (labs, vital signs, etc), provides preventative health prompts, and it encourages overall practice management review. However, these data are not easily transportable to the patient's care team outside of the primary practice (emergency room, hospital, specialists, etc).

  • The electronic health record (EHR) can be conceptualized as an EMR with significantly more functionality. One of the critical differences is that the EHR is designed to be shared by all providers that are involved in the patient's care, including those outside of the provider that collected the information. This secure sharing of patient information has the added benefit of improved communication between all members of the patient's health care team, from the ambulatory to the inpatient setting. Parts of the record can also be accessed by the patient, so that the patient may serve as an active member of the health care team.

Other important terms are

  • Health information technology (Health IT) is the overarching construct that includes both EMR and EHR, and is a term used to represent the use of computer hardware and software to store, retrieve, and share patient health and medical information.

  • Personal health record (PHR) is an electronic record of a patient's health-related information that is managed, shared, and controlled by or for the individual. The data in these records can be drawn from multiple sources. However, the key difference is that the patients themselves control access to the records. PHRs can be connected to the patient's EHR, or can be a stand-alone record stored online or on a computer. It is important to note that some PHRs, specifically those that are not offered by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)-covered entities, may fall outside the scope of HIPAA protection.


In the 1990s, as personal computers became ubiquitous, health care systems invested heavily in core systems that moved their processes into the digital world. These included laboratory, radiology, and pharmacy systems. However, the investment in a clinical technology platform was not widespread. ...

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