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Conceptualising and creating a global learning health system

By Charles Friedman, Michael Rigby.


In any country the health sector is important in terms of human wellbeing and large in terms of economics. The health sector might therefore be expected to be a finely tuned enterprise, utilising corporate knowledge in a constant process of critically reviewing and improving its activities and processes. However, this is seldom the case. Health systems and practice are highly variable and lag behind research discovery. This contrasts strongly with commercial bodies, and particularly service industries, where the concept of the learning organisation is strongly seen as the key to optimisation. A learning organisation accesses for analytic purposes operational data, which though captured and recorded for day-to-day transactions at the customer level, become also the basis of understanding changes in both demand and delivery process.

In health care, the concept of the learning organisation is well grounded ethically. Anything which can improve health, including understanding of optimal care delivery processes and how to improve longer term outcomes, should be seized upon to drive service improvement – but currently this occurs haphazardly. The limitations of paper-based systems, priority given to digitalization of financial transactions, concerns about electronic data insecurity, and other factors have inhibited progress towards organisational learning at a national scale. But in recent years, new means of capturing, managing, and exchanging data have created new opportunities, while ever increasing pressures on health systems have produced strengthened incentive.

In the United States, the current policy and investment impetus to electronic health records and concomitantly their ‘meaningful use’ create opportunities to build the foundations for data re-use for corporate learning – and thus for societal gain. In Europe and other settings there are islands of innovation, but not yet a coherent culture or impetus to build foundations for a learning health system. This paper considers how to move forward, in the light of the urgent need for smarter health systems where experience becomes the fuel for rapid improvement, and best practices are routinely identified and applied.

► Health systems need to make better use of data held within the system. ► Evidence should be based on application in practice as well as on pure research in controlled environments. ► Commercial sector service industries have a tradition of learning organisation approaches. ► New policies on e-health in the USA give a new opportunity, but need to be developed. ► Europe has some positive individual initiatives, but as yet no overall cohesive knowledge creation strategy.

Friedman, C., & Rigby, M. (2013). Conceptualising and creating a global learning health system. International journal of medical informatics, 82(4), e63-e71.