What Is an EHR System? Overview and FAQ

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Written by Katherine Zheng, PhD, BSN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Danielle Roques, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Two nurses sitting together at a work station, checking something on the EHR system.

Thanks to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, technology has been at the forefront of improving patient care for over a decade. This vital legislation guides the meaningful use of health information technology by encouraging healthcare organizations to implement EHR systems. But what is an EHR system, exactly?

If you wish to learn more about the basics of EHR technology, we have you covered. We’ll demystify this topic by providing a quick overview and addressing frequently asked questions (FAQ).

What Is an EHR System?

Electronic health record (EHR) systems in healthcare are cloud- or server-based digital medical record systems that help you collect, manage, and share patient health data among healthcare providers. Patient data stored in an EHR is protected health information (PHI) safeguarded by federal law through HIPAA.

Healthcare providers or organizations that don’t adopt or use an EHR-certified system are penalized by having their Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement claims reduced by 3%. This can quickly add up to a substantial amount and is a strong incentive for compliance with the HITECH Act.

What Are the Different Types of Electronic Health Record Systems?

Beyond asking, What is an EHR system? you may be wondering what types of systems are available. There are many different vendors on the market that can supply you with services supporting an electronic health record. Example vendors that you may be familiar with include Cerner, Epic, and MEDITECH. However, EHR systems can more generally be categorized by the way that they store data. We’ll walk through these different storage methods below.

  • Physician-Hosted System. EHR data is stored on the physician’s own servers. The physician has full control over the data and is also responsible for maintenance, security, and backups. However, the vendor can disable the software in the event of a dispute.
  • Subsidized System. An overseeing entity (e.g., a hospital) subsidizes the EHR. The subsidizing entity’s servers are typically used rather than the physician’s, so the physician doesn’t have control over the data.
  • Dedicated Host System. The data is stored on a vendor’s dedicated servers, rather than a physician’s own server. While the physician does not have control over data storage, the EHR software is stored in a known physical location.
  • Cloud System. EHR data is stored on a vendor’s server via the internet (i.e., in the clouds), and the physician accesses the software through the vendor’s website. These vendors are called “software as a service” (SaaS) providers.

What Is an EHR vs. EMR System?

Many people within healthcare use the terms EHR and EMR interchangeably, but you should be aware of their fundamental differences. So, what is an EHR system versus an EMR system? Let’s begin with defining an EMR and then compare these two systems.

An electronic medical record (EMR) is the digital version of a patient’s paper chart. This system contains patient medical histories, diagnoses, and treatments within a single practice and is significantly more basic than an EHR. The table below summarizes how EHRs and EMRs vary.

Primary Focus Specific medical conditions of a patient Holistic view of patient’s overall health
Data Sharing Capability Limited to sharing information with authorized clinicians and healthcare workers within a particular practice Able to share data with the patient and authorized healthcare workers and clinicians within a healthcare system network independent of location
Functions Collect, manage, and store patient medical histories, diagnoses, and treatments Same as EMR and also provides a platform for:

  • Scheduling appointments
  • Collaborating and communicating information among patient’s multidisciplinary team
  • Electronic prescribing of medication and treatments
  • Storing laboratory and imaging results
  • Billing

What Are the Benefits of EHR Systems?

If you’re planning to invest in an electronic health record system, it’s a good idea to develop a list of their benefits and drawbacks to aid in your decision-making. Here are some of the many ways EHRs can improve patient outcomes and organizational operations.

Improves Accessibility of Information

EHRs are designed to provide correct, real-time, and comprehensive patient information. For example, clinicians can chart their notes at the time of care and import testing results for complete documentation. This ensures that the entire team has the information they need, when they need it.

Supports Teamwork

EHRs also help enhance communication and collaboration. The multidisciplinary team can review each other’s notes and all testing results within a secure platform, facilitating the development of high-quality patient care plans.

Enhances Care Quality

Adopting an EHR system can enable your team to deliver higher-quality (and safer) patient care. Electronic charting can prevent team misunderstandings and medical errors from illegible handwriting, since provider notes, orders, and prescriptions are entered through typing.

Reduces Costs

EHRs can help you reduce costs by decreasing the risk of errors and improving outcomes. Providers’ access to patients’ complete online health data helps them avoid prescribing new medications that adversely react with current ones, ensure preventive screenings are up-to-date, and eliminate unnecessary testing.

Streamlines the Billing Process

An EHR system also facilitates many tasks related to coding and billing. Providers can add their National Provider Identifier (NPI) to their profile and reference billing codes within the EHR, ensuring documentation of essential information to improve efficiency and optimize insurance reimbursements.

What Are the Drawbacks of EHR Systems?

While there are many advantages to EHRs, you also need to consider their disadvantages. Here are the drawbacks to consider before investing in an EHR.

Introduces Cybersecurity Risks

EHR and computer systems are prime targets for hacking attacks that attempt to steal, corrupt, and delete PHI data. Healthcare organizations must ensure their EHR has capable security to minimize the risk of a data breach.

Data Integrity Impacts Outcomes

Providers rely on the entire healthcare team to enter the correct information in real-time to make accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatment decisions. Data error and delayed chart entries compromise documentation integrity and increase the risk of medical errors —jeopardizing patient outcomes.

Substantial Cost and Time Investment

EHR software is expensive, and implementing a new system disrupts clinical workflows and temporarily decreases productivity during the migration to the new system. Staff will also need proper training and ramp-up time to ensure efficient use of the system.

Increases Clinician Burnout

The enhanced functionality of EHRs has created a burden for clinicians to document and enter more information. The more time and workload caused by additional charting has led to decreased job satisfaction and increased burnout.

How to Choose the Right EHR System for Your Facility

Now that you can answer the question, What is an EHR system? you’re probably wondering how to find one that’s right for your facility. Below we’ll outline five key steps to optimize your EHR system selection strategy.

1. Assemble a Committee of Stakeholders

The first step is to assemble a team that can help you research, select, and implement your new EHR system. This team should include a mix of IT, billing, marketing, and clinical staff, as well as departmental or administrative leaders. Essentially, any staff that will be largely impacted by a new EHR system should have representation on your committee.

2. Research Different EHR Vendors

Once you’ve assembled your committee, it’s time to start looking into different vendors on the market. At this stage, it’s important to find vendors that fit within your price range. You’ll want to reach out to vendors and ask them for their full cost breakdown, which includes:

  • Activation costs
  • Licensing fees
  • Maintenance costs
  • Functionality costs
  • Subscription fees
  • Training costs

3. Utilize Trials on Different EHR Models

Once you’ve connected with vendors that fall within your budget, utilize trials and conduct robust product testing on their EHR models. Remember, this investment will need to fit your day-to-day operations and improve efficiency. In addition, it will need to fit the needs of key departments such as clinical, quality, and billing.

4. Narrow Down a List of Essential Functions

After testing different systems and obtaining feedback from your team, determine which system functions are essential. For example, does your team need functions that support remote charting, or will your entire team be using the EHR on site? This will help you determine what type of EHR is needed to support your workflow.

5. Select a System That Meets Established Standards

Finally, it’s important to select an EHR product that meets the government standards and regulations for certified electronic health record technology (CEHRT), HIPAA, and the HITECH Act. Choose a system with advanced cybersecurity to safeguard your patients’ and organizations’ data and avoid stiff HIPAA violation penalties.

Is Your Facility Utilizing the Best Technology?

Now that you’re able to answer the question, What is an EHR system? you can see why the government endorses this software. Want to learn even more ways to improve outcomes and avoid costly mistakes? Sign up today to receive healthcare news, tips, and insights, delivered straight to your inbox.

IntelyCare education development nurse and writer Diana Campion, MSN, APRN, ANP-C, contributed to the writing and research for this article.

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