Becoming a Learning Health System: The Penn State Health experience

January 14, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As health care costs rise and providers strive to become more efficient and cost conscious, researchers at Penn State say some institutions like Penn State Health are embracing learning health system principles, which help systems gain information and improve care on a daily basis.

In a paper published in the journal Management in Healthcare, researchers at Penn State described Penn State Health's experience in the early stages of becoming a learning health system. The research also highlighted the process of making critical decisions and incorporating stakeholder needs throughout the intervention design.

Joel Segel, assistant professor of health policy and administration, said the findings help underscore the importance — but also the difficulty — of coordinating operations across multiple groups within a health care system to identify, implement and tailor programs to improve patient health.

“As employers and payers continue to be concerned about the rising costs of health care, it will be increasingly critical to bring providers, patients, employers and payers to the table to collaborate on finding and implementing cost-effective solutions to improving population health,” Segel said.

According to the researchers, a learning health system has four main features. It often uses health information technology to capture and analyze real-time data from patient care, as well as real-time generation and application of clinical knowledge. It also includes patients as vital members of care teams, while also incorporating leadership-instilled cultures of learning in order to turn clinical research knowledge into practice.

Segel said that in April 2017, clinicians and administrators from Penn State Health and researchers from Penn State came together to discuss the possibility of offering chronic-disease-care management to Penn State employees and their spouses.

With support from an internal strategic grant, the Penn State team designed, implemented, and conducted an evaluation of a targeted intervention. Penn State Health ultimately chose an intervention based on the Diabetes Prevention Program, and the researchers collaborated to evaluate the implementation process.

The Diabetes Prevention Program is an evidence-based program supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that provides participants with group classes to learn about nutrition and physical activity. The program has been shown to significantly reduce the development of type II diabetes among groups at elevated risk.

In the paper, the researchers also shared some of the lessons they learned throughout the process. The researchers advised to just get started, while being aware of organizational constraints on staff and space.

They also recommended providing leaders with appropriate authority and autonomy while being aware of organizational needs in terms of revenue and the business model, and having team members or partners who can navigate the entire research process to identify and design an intervention with the best chance of success among the target population.

Dennis Scanlon, distinguished professor of health policy and administration; Selena Ortiz, assistant professor of health policy and administration; Bethany Shaw, research analyst; and Mark Stephens, professor of family and community medicine, also participated in this work.

A seed grant from Penn State’s Strategic Plan Seed Grant Initiative helped support this research.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 05, 2020