Harnessing Data with Learning Health Systems

It’s only a matter of time before scientists begin improving patient care by harnessing the large amount of electronic health information increasingly captured on individuals. As explored in an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, one approach gaining traction in the health care community is the establishment of learning health systems (LHS). With a LHS, electronic patient data from multiple sources can be continuously integrated into a database and made available immediately for research and quality improvement purposes. Importantly, the LHS can advance individualized medical care as researchers use the database to assess how patient characteristics influence clinical outcomes for a myriad of diseases. These findings would then be used to refine treatment for future patients. In a LHS, this process will occur on an ongoing basis, allowing clinicians to effectively tailor care as more patients are added to the database.

In the article, Friedman and colleagues describe the progress made in the US towards achieving a large-scale LHS and outline what needs to happen to ensure the successful establishment of this type of system. In particular, the groundwork for implementation of a national LHS has been laid through federal investment in the standardization of electronic health records and through the creation of “learning networks” by both private and public entities. To successfully implement a national LHS, a panel of experts noted the importance of building trust in the system, incentivizing the private sector to participate, and determining how to effectively communicate results to the appropriate stakeholders. The authors also suggest that a new science, one of “large-scale” learning systems, may be necessary.

Though it’s not clear how long it will be before a national LHS is realized, the potential for improving patient care is promising. As smaller scale systems are established, such as ones being developed and implemented by Hopkins inHealth through Oncospace and inCAR, the future of the LHS seems bright.

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