Electronic Health Records

An electronic health record or EHR is a digital version of the medical history and health of a patient that can be accessed electronically or online. EHRs are used by patients, physicians, and other specialists involved in making decisions to deliver medical care.

The records may include clinical data such as immunizations, past medical history, vital signs, medications, allergies, progress notes, radiology reports, laboratory data and results, and demographics.

We can look at an EHR as a comprehensive patient profile that can be accessed anytime, anywhere. EHRs also allow health care providers to access evidence-based tools to help them make decisions on the patient care.

A fully functional EHR system is designed to automate processes and streamline overall workflow, helping health care organizations become more efficient and attend to more people in need.

Through the meaningful use of EHRs, health care providers can make better and timely decisions on the best next steps for patients, saving time, money, and ultimately, lives.

What is the difference between an electronic health record and an electronic medical record?

Before EHRs were EMRs, or electronic medical records. They may seem to do the same thing, but there’s a key difference between the two. EMRs, like EHRs, are digital versions of the paper charts used by clinicians.

EMRs contain the medical and treatment history of a patient in one practice, allowing clinicians of that practice to do the following:

  • Track patient data over time
  • Identify which patients are due for checkups or preventive screenings
  • Check patient status in terms of blood pressure, heart rate, vaccinations, and other parameters
  • Monitor and make improvements on how medical care is delivered within the practice

As you can see, the purpose of the EMR is limited to within the practice. If a patient chooses to consult another practice, he or she may have difficulty obtaining their medical record.

In most cases, the EMR would have to be printed out first and delivered by mail to specialists. This may sound counterproductive and defeats the purpose of having an electronic record in the first place, but there you have it.

On the other hand, EHRs do more than serve as a digital version of a patient’s medical history. The operative word here is “health,” which goes beyond the standard clinical data. Additionally, EHRs not only focus on a patient’s overall health but are also designed to be shared with other health care providers.

EHRs contain information from all of the clinicians or specialists involved in the patient’s care, not only those within a certain practice or health care organization.

This means that even if a patient needs to move to a different address or consult another clinician, they don’t have to wait for their doctor’s chart to be reproduced or printed out, and at the end of the day they might have two or three EMRs.

They only need one EHR containing inputs from everyone, from their GP to their cardiologist and from laboratories to medical imaging facilities. Plus, with access to their own EHR, patients can take a more proactive role in their care.

What are the benefits of adopting EHRs?

With electronic health records, everyone involved in a patient’s care – including the patient – will have ready access to real-time information, allowing for greater coordination and faster delivery of services.

Here are the benefits of using EHRs.

For clinicians

  • Decreased incidence of medical error by improving the clarity and accuracy of medical records
  • Medication errors from illegible handwriting are reduced, allowing clinicians to give clearer instructions
  • Integration with barcode scanning technology reduces adverse drug events
  • Simplification of notifications for critical lab results
  • Aids clinicians in determining when to have a lab test repeated; reduced the number of duplicate tests
  • Storage of and access to radiology results (X-rays and radiology reports)
  • Comprehensive health information that allows them to consider all aspects of a patient’s condition
  • Built-in safeguards against medications or treatments that would result in adverse events

For patients

  • Patient empowerment through access to updated health information (via patient portals that allow patients to read, print, as well as send their information to providers)
  • Medication updates
  • Reduced delays in getting treatment
  • Smooth and hassle-free consultations between different care settings

For organizations

  • Audit trails and access features that keep health information safe from those who do not have permission to see patient data
  • Improvement of overall efficiency
  • Monitoring of operational data, allowing organizations to make improvements in clinical quality
  • Better relations with patients

What should you look for when choosing an EHR?

There are many EHR software on the market, each with different features. Assuming you already have the budget for it, the right EHR for your organization should:

  • Meet your organization’s current and future needs
  • Be easy to use or make the transition to the system easy with training
  • Ensure the privacy and security of patient data, and have backup options
  • Integrate well with the other software or systems you are using
  • Come with upgrades and support
  • Be certified for government-sponsored incentive programs (certification for Meaningful Use, among other criteria and standards)

Case Study: How one organization is using EHRs to deliver faster cancer treatment

Lung cancer is one of the most common causes of death among people worldwide. In the United States, more people die of lung cancer than of prostate, breast, and colon cancers combined. Medical professionals agree that the key to reducing morbidity and mortality is early detection and treatment.

Unfortunately, more than half of U.S. patients with the disease are only diagnosed after the cancer has already spread to other organs. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery may be done, but by then it would often be too late to make a significant positive impact on a patient’s health.

In addition, patients diagnosed with lung cancer would need to wait for around 40 days on average before they can undergo life-saving or at least life-extending surgery.

In 2011, nearly 57 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer in Kaiser Permanente North Valley in California had already experienced the tumor spreading to their other organs.

But by 2014, this figure had dropped to just a little over 52 percent. And in the organization’s Oakland facility, the average time from diagnosis to definitive surgery is just 16 days.

These improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer are attributed to Kaiser Permanente’s implementation of a new approach that uses electronic health records.

With an EHR system in place, specialists are able to access comprehensive health information of a patient at the same time, allowing them to discuss and reach a consensus on the best treatment.

The consultations that used to take weeks – sometimes with conflicting advice from different physicians – can now be done in a day, getting patients onto the path to treatment in the soonest time possible.

Many other medical groups and facilities have successfully implemented EHRs in their organizations. You can do the same and use EHRs to enable your organization to deliver better medical care.