What is a learning health system?

Dr. Dean Fergusson

“It’s hard to articulate what a learning health system is. I think the evolution is an extension of patient-oriented research with patient engagement in hospitals, institutes, primary care centres whereby patients are involved in governance, priority-setting and defining patient-oriented outcomes. As patient-oriented research grows, learning health systems will develop. Continuous quality improvement using big data, patient-centred research and patient engagement are part of the natural transition to learning health systems.”

He cites Trillium Health Partners as an example of how to build and instill a culture of a learning health system.

“They’ve assembled some really bright minds in big data, patient engagement, informatics, health economics – all the tools for evidence-based health care and management – and appointed senior leadership with a mandate to execute. They’ve done it right by getting the right minds, champions, and a thoughtful action plan to execute.”

Dr. Seema Marwaha

She noted two cross cutting perspectives from the session: the patient perspective and equity, both of which must be embedded in the entire learning health system rather than as tokenistic or viewed as a box to check.

The patient perspective is critical to understanding how to improve the health system and evolve a learning health system.

“Healthcare workers don’t know much about what a patient experiences unless we go through it ourselves,” said Seema. “They don’t really teach us the patient experience part in medical school. For example, a parent of a kid with type 1 diabetes might want to know what kind of birthday cake to buy their kid in addition to what type of insulin. We don’t learn these details in school, we learn them from patients.”

The varied perspectives were critical to the session’s success.

“The panel was a microcosm of what we want the learning health system to be. It was nice to see all these different professionals on a level playing field talking about a shared goal – system leaders, researchers, patients, doctors, all focused on the same thing through different lenses,” said Seema.

“We need to understand where we are now and where we need to go.  We then need disruption to do things differently across systems.”