What’s in a word? Or, even one letter of an acronym?

Some people use the terms “electronic medical record” and “electronic health record” (or “EMR” and “EHR”) interchangeably. But at the government’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), you’ll notice they use electronic health record or EHR almost exclusively. While it may seem a little picky at first, the difference between the two terms is actually quite significant.The EMR term came along first, and indeed, early EMRs were “medical.” They were for use by clinicians mostly for diagnosis and treatment.

In contrast, “health” relates to “The condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially…freedom from physical disease or pain…the general condition of the body.” The word “health” covers a lot more territory than the word “medical.” And EHRs go a lot further than EMRs.

What’s the Difference?

Electronic medical records (EMRs) are a digital version of the paper charts in the clinician’s office. An EMR contains the medical and treatment history of the patients in one practice. EMRs have advantages over paper records. For example, EMRs allow clinicians to:

  • Track data over time
  • Easily identify which patients are due for preventive screenings or checkups
  • Check how their patients are doing on certain parameters—such as blood pressure readings or vaccinations
  • Monitor and improve overall quality of care within the practice

But the information in EMRs doesn’t travel easily out of the practice. In fact, the patient’s record might even have to be printed out and delivered by mail to specialists and other members of the care team. In that regard, EMRs are not much better than a paper record.

Electronic health records (EHRs) do all those things—and more. EHRs focus on the total health of the patient—going beyond standard clinical data collected in the provider’s office and inclusive of a broader view on a patient’s care. EHRs are designed to reach out beyond the health organization that originally collects and compiles the information. They are built to share information with other health care providers, such as laboratories and specialists, so they contain information from all the clinicians involved in the patient’s care. The National Alliance for Health Information Technology stated that EHR data “can be created, managed, and consulted by authorized clinicians and staff across more than one healthcare organization.”

The information moves with the patient—to the specialist, the hospital, the nursing home, the nex