Healthcare Analytics, Population Health Management, Healthcare Big Data

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Learning Health Systems, Big Data Key to Improving Outcomes

Big data analytics and continually learning health systems are required to improve outcomes and share best practices with peers.

Learning health systems and big data are key to improving outcomes

Source: Thinkstock

By Jessica Kent

- Healthcare organizations looking to quickly translate research into best practices for clinical care should focus on transforming themselves into learning health systems that rely heavily on insights from big data analytics, says Peter Embi, MD, President and CEO of Regenstrief Institute.

In a learning health system, clinicians and leaders work together to identify actionable insights and communicate data to patients in ways that support shared decision-making.

Regenstrief Institute, in collaboration with the Indiana University School of Medicine, has received a $3.4 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to train the next generation of learning health system researchers.

Peter Embi, MD, President and CEO of Regenstrief Institute. Source: Xtelligent Media

“The goal of the learning health system is to deliver better outcomes at lower costs, and to do that in a way that helps us improve the care we provide,” Embi told

“With the advent of EHRs and health IT systems, we can collect a lot of data about care experiences, and mine this data to make discoveries and improve care in the future. We always try to practice evidence-based medicine, and because of health IT, we can now generate that evidence through real-world experiences.”

READ MORE: The 7 Step Plan to Success with Big Data Analytics in Healthcare

Regenstrief and IU School of Medicine are among eleven US institutions that AHRQ and PCORI have selected to support learning health system researchers. The grants will total $40 million over five years, a significant initiative for an industry that has typically separated research ventures and care delivery.  

“The most fundamental challenge is that for many years, the healthcare system has thought of research and care as very distinct activities, where the application of research findings to practice is the appropriate relationship,” Embi said.

“We need to leverage everyday healthcare activities to inform and generate evidence, and then use that evidence to improve care for individuals in the future. We need to align the way we implement and use our technology, how we collect information, and how we apply that information back to the system to learn.”

Seamlessly integrating research and clinical care will require providers to view each and every patient encounter as a learning experience, and to utilize those lessons to improve care in the future, Embi believes.

“Traditionally, healthcare has been more about treating individual patients. Our regulatory structures are not necessarily where they need to be in order to change that.  Our incentives, in terms of how we pay for care and how we fund the healthcare system, don’t really support a culture of learning,” he said.

READ MORE: Identifying Big Data Sources for Population Health Management

“The more we can understand the importance of generating evidence through practice, and the more we can leverage that evidence to improve care for people in the future, the more we can recognize that we need to align those incentives to create learning health systems.”

 Regenstrief Institute will play a critical role in preparing clinicians to consider care delivery as a learning process, and to create optimal outcomes for every patient.

Providers who complete this training will understand how to collaborate with health system leaders, as well as conduct studies to address how organizations can improve patient outcomes.

“We’re taking folks who have already gone through their training and educating them in everything from informatics to health services research, so they can operationalize true learning health systems and fully leverage every patient care opportunity,” Embi said.

“These individuals have the knowledge and the skillset when they graduate from our program to improve the healthcare system. We'll measure that through better health of our populations and our patients, and ideally accomplish all of that at a lower cost.”

READ MORE: Population Health Nurses Require Changes in Education, Practices

The overarching aim of learning health systems, Embi noted, is to use information from specific patients and apply it to others, which will strengthen population health.

“If we look at a health system from the perspective of systematic learning, we start to understand that all of these activities we're engaged in, and all the data we're collecting, are not only helpful in taking care of the individual in front of us at the moment, but also in learning how we can take care of people with similar conditions,” he said.

With the award from AHRQ and PCORI, Regenstrief Institute expects to cultivate a culture of learning in healthcare, which will enhance health outcomes for individuals and communities in the future.

“We're excited about the grant, because I think it gives us an opportunity to train the next generation of researchers who will really focus on developing the skills needed to actually create these learning health systems,” Embi said.

“The more we can learn from every patient care encounter, the better we can manage population health in the future. If the healthcare system is organized that way, then it positions us to improve quality, decrease costs, and ultimately improve people's lives. That’s really our goal.”


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