Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) are nothing new; in fact, the concept dates back to the 1960s and some of the very first computers. But as the technology has evolved, the features and benefits have become more advanced and extensive. When implemented correctly, EMRs can contribute to better operational efficiency and patient care. On the other hand, they aren't a silver bullet. Rather, EMRs work best when integrated with other systems as part of a comprehensive tech stack. In this guide, we'll explore the ins and outs of EMRs, how they can support patient flow (and how they can't) plus considerations for success.

What is an EMR?

Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) are digital versions of patients' paper charts, containing comprehensive medical histories, diagnoses, medications, treatment plans, immunization dates, allergies, radiology images, laboratory test results, and more.

The concept of electronic medical records traces back to the 1960s when hospitals and healthcare institutions began experimenting with computerized systems to manage patient data. It wasn't until 1972, however, that the Regenstrief Institute, a research organization affiliated with Indiana University, developed the first EMR.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, only large hospital systems could afford to leverage EMR systems; but by the 1990s, advancements in computing technology spurred the adoption of electronic medical records on a broader scale. EMR systems at this time were fairly basic and lacked interoperability, limiting their effectiveness in facilitating seamless data exchange between healthcare facilities.

In 2009, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was enacted in the United States, providing financial incentives for healthcare providers to implement certified electronic health record (EHR) systems. This legislation marked a pivotal moment in the history of EMRs, catalyzing their widespread adoption across the healthcare industry.

In recent years, technological advancements such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and interoperability standards like HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) have revolutionized the EMR landscape. Modern EMR systems also have more extensive capabilities—including clinical decision support, telemedicine integration, and patient portals.

Legal requirements of EMRs

EMRs must comply with legal requirements such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). This compliance calls for specific features to ensure patient privacy and data security. Non-required additional options include telemedicine integration, patient portals, and appointment scheduling to enhance functionality and patient engagement (read on for more detail on common EMR features).

What are some key features of EMRs?

As digital repositories of patient information, comprehensive EMRs have the power to streamline workflows, enhance communication, and empower clinicians to deliver high-quality care. Some common features include:

  • Patient profiles. At the heart of every EMR system lies a comprehensive patient profile that serves as a centralized repository of critical medical information. From demographic details and medical history to medication lists and diagnostic results, EMRs provide healthcare providers with a holistic view of each patient's health status, enabling informed decision-making and personalized care delivery.
  • Interoperability. As mentioned, earlier EMRs did not have the seamless interoperability that allowed for data exchange between different healthcare providers and systems. Modern EMRs better facilitate this by adhering to standardized data formats and protocols, allowing for the secure exchange of patient information across disparate healthcare settings.
  • Clinical documentation. Easier, faster note-taking and information input are hallmarks of modern EMRs. EMR providers are even integrating AI and voice-to-text features to facilitate this.
  • Decision support tools. Many EMRs come equipped with built-in decision support tools that leverage clinical guidelines, best practices, and patient-specific data to assist healthcare providers in making evidence-based decisions. This can include everything from medication alerts and allergy warnings to clinical reminders and diagnostic assistance.
  • Patient engagement tools. From secure patient portals and appointment scheduling to health education resources that foster communication between patients and providers, many modern EMRs contain a variety of options for patient engagement tools.
  • Security features. Added security features are a key feature of any good EMR.

Get more information about EMRs here.

Different types of EMRs

Several well-known healthcare technology brands offer EMRs, so there is no shortage of types of EMRs. But in a nutshell, most healthcare providers fall into one of the three categories:

  • Basic EMRs offer fundamental functionalities for small clinics or solo practitioners.
  • Specialty-specific EMRs are designed to meet the unique requirements of specific medical specialties such as cardiology, oncology, or pediatrics.
  • Enterprise EMRs offer comprehensive capabilities for managing large-scale healthcare organizations with multiple locations and specialties.

EMR vs. EHR—what's the difference?

While often used interchangeably, there may sometimes be a subtle difference between EMRs and Electronic Health Records (EHRs). EMRs typically contain patient information specific to a single practice or healthcare organization, whereas EHRs encompass a patient's health information from multiple providers and across different healthcare settings.

Patient tracking and flow in EMRs

As EMR companies add more features and functionality to their systems, you may be curious about the role EMRs can play in patient tracking and flow. It's important to understand the difference between patient flow in an EMR and a true patient flow solution (which EMRs cannot offer. Let's review the basics of what some EMRs can do and what they cannot:

EMRs can help with patient tracking by:

  • Showing history and current status of how a patient has/is moving through a healthcare organization in an inpatient or outpatient setting (for example, if a patient is at a hospital over an extended period, their EMR might show how/where they've been in the hospital during that stay.
  • Integrating with physical patient trackers to show real-time patient location; for example, in hospitals and nursing homes where real-time patient tracking is important for security and safety
  • Track patient's history within a healthcare organization (appointment dates, notes, prescriptions, diagnoses, test results, etc.)

EMRs will NOT help with patient flow in the following ways:

  • EMRs do not offer light systems that indicate real-time patient location and status, which can enable immediate visual direction and easier room sequencing.
  • EMRs do not offer certain real-time data such as how long a patient has been waiting in each location (waiting room, in the exam room waiting for a doctor, etc.)
  • EMRs do not allow staff (doctors, nurses, and admin) to make immediate adjustments based on patient flow data (wait times); for example, an EMR will not help nurses or admin prioritize which patients to see first based on the longest wait times.
  • EMRs do not provide aggregated data on the above items (patient wait time, time spent with doctors, etc.)—which can be used to identify bottlenecks and opportunities for continuous improvement. This can ultimately translate to better patient experience and profitability.
  • EMR companies do not provide patient flow consultation—in which healthcare organizations can get a better handle on patient experience and get tips on how to eliminate bottlenecks in patient flow.

It's vital to remember these distinctions when assessing EMRs and patient flow technologies alike. While EMR system providers will often reference patient flow or patient tracking features, these capabilities are often very limited to the information that is manually added to a patient's EMR file. Therefore, if patient tracking or patient flow is a priority, it's important to assess dedicated systems to get the highest ROI.

Defining a true patient flow system

In healthcare management, a patient flow system also referred to as patient flow management, encompasses the procedures, tools, and technologies tailored to optimize patient movement within a healthcare facility. From the moment a patient enters the facility and approaches the reception desk to the point of departure, these systems aim to ensure efficient, timely, and coordinated care delivery while enhancing patient satisfaction and operational efficiency.

Efficiency in patient flow revolves around the speed and effectiveness with which healthcare organizations guide patients through their facilities without compromising care quality or the patient experience.

Advantages of dedicated patient flow systems

  • Enhanced patient experience: Chief among the benefits is the improvement in the in-office patient experience. Lengthy wait times are a common complaint in patient surveys and industry reports. Patient flow systems effectively address this issue, reducing wait times, enhancing patient satisfaction, and providing healthcare providers with more time to engage with patients. These improvements translate into tangible impacts on a healthcare organization's operational costs and revenue.
  • Improved staff morale: Poor patient flow can negatively impact staff morale, leading to stress and frustration among healthcare practitioners and administrative staff. Patient flow systems alleviate these issues by streamlining patient care coordination, making the job more fulfilling for staff members.
  • Financial gains: Effective patient flow management not only optimizes staffing but also boosts patient satisfaction and improves healthcare outcomes, ultimately contributing to a facility's financial bottom line.

Selecting the right patient flow system

There are several types of EMRs to choose from, but comprehensive patient flow systems are fewer in number and more nuanced—and not all solutions are equal. It's essential to choose a turnkey solution that includes all necessary hardware and software components, along with expert consulting and installation services to tailor the system to the facility's needs. These elements include:

  • Light signaling system: The journey toward improved patient flow begins with a light signaling system. This system comprises easily accessible light panels strategically placed throughout the clinic, featuring location-specific illuminated buttons. Clinic staff use these buttons to indicate patient status, enabling efficient room sequencing and providing clear visual cues for staff members to manage patient flow effectively.
  • Real-time monitoring: Real-time monitoring offers a comprehensive overview of the facility via a central monitor in the clinical area. This feature allows staff to monitor room occupancy, patient wait times, staff locations, and visit durations in real-time, facilitating prompt adjustments to alleviate patient flow bottlenecks as they arise.
  • Lean clinical consulting: Ongoing consultation for continuous improvement is crucial when selecting a patient flow system. The system should capture and measure various key performance indicators (KPIs) to manage and monitor the complete patient experience; then, the provider's consulting team should help analyze and leverage this data for ongoing optimizations.
  • How to integrate EMRs with patient flow systems

    There are several ways to integrate EMR systems with patient flow systems for optimal efficiency. Here are just a few thought starters:

    • Use data from the patient flow system (wait times, doctor-patient time, etc.) in conjunction with EMR data (patient satisfaction surveys, medical outcomes, etc.). Looking at both together can give you a higher-level look at challenges and opportunities for improvement. It can also help illustrate key correlations between data like wait times and patient satisfaction or medical outcomes and patient-doctor face time.
    • Use patient flow systems in conjunction with EMR systems to make staff members' lives easier by automating and streamlining key functions like patient data input, doctor/nurse coordination, patient prioritization, etc.
    • Improve the pre- and post-appointment patient experience with patient engagement tools on the EMR (patient portals for example); then use the patient flow solution to improve the in-office experience by reducing wait times and maximizing patients' time with doctors.

    Introducing the Lean Patient Flow solution

    Implementing effective patient flow strategies requires expertise and meticulous planning. The Expeditor Lean Patient Flow system combines a Light Signaling System, Real-Time Patient Flow Monitoring, and Lean Clinical Consulting through Predictive Analytics, offering a comprehensive solution unmatched in the market. Healthcare providers can expect significant improvements in patient flow efficiency and substantial benefits, including time savings, increased patient throughput, and enhanced face time with patients. With decades of experience and thousands of satisfied clients, our expertise and technology set the industry standard. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation and unlock the full potential of your patient flow management.