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Electronic Health Records

Not that long ago, doctors and nurses would write notes in a patient's chart — often a sheaf of papers fastened to a clipboard — during an office visit. These notes then would be added to the patient's ever-expanding medical file, which was physically stored on the premises. Until the digital age, there was no other way to store a patient's medical record.

But that was then.

Today, more and more patients can expect to see computers instead of clipboards when they hop onto the exam-room table, thanks to the adoption of health information technology (HIT) by U.S. health care providers and hospitals.

By 2014, it is estimated that the majority of hospitals, doctors' offices, and medical centers nationwide will store health information electronically.

What Is an EHR?

An electronic health record (EHR), also called electronic medical record (EMR), is a computerized collection of a patient's health details. But it's more than just that — it's a new way of storing and organizing patient information. Like hospital charts, EHR patient files are divided into sections where health care providers and staff can find the information they need to provide patient care or perform administrative tasks.

Information stored within an EHR can include a patient's medical history (including immunization status, test results, and growth and development records), health insurance and billing information, and other health-related data.

Because it's stored digitally, the information can be shared easily among a patient's various health care providers within a facility, and can be quickly sent from one facility to another if a patient finds a new health provider.

How Is Information Accessed?

Most hospitals have their own unique EHR databases that are set up to be accessible from every computer. To open a patient's health record, a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider would log into the system with a username and password or thumbprint identification.

Providers also can access information remotely (such as from an off-site computer) by logging into their work's network system via the Internet and accessing the EHR. Systems are directly accessible over the Internet, too.

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