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Public Health and the National Learning Health System

posted on Wed, Apr 10 2013 2:36 pm by Jennifer Bernstein

In March, the Mid-States Region of the Network convened over 50 public health experts in health information and data sharing to examine the role of public health in a national scale Learning Health System (LHS). The Institute of Medicine defines a Learning Health System as a system “in which progress in science, informatics and care culture align to generate new knowledge as an ongoing, natural by-product of the care experience, and seamlessly refine and deliver best practices for continuous improvement in health and health care.” Such a system would bring together knowledge from across the health spectrum to provide more immediate access to a greater range of information for research and practice, with the overall goal of improving health outcomes.

The concept of a LHS has been gaining momentum within the health care field over the past few years. Last spring, a national summit was held in which 80 prominent organizations and stakeholders from across the health care and health IT communities gathered in Washington, D.C to develop a set of core principles to guide the development of a Learning Health System. Many big name players in health care have formally endorsed these core values, including Kaiser Permanente and Mayo Clinic.

So why should this matter to public health agencies? The development of a national Learning Health System could mean important new capabilities for public health, including increased capacity for disease surveillance, faster dissemination of effective health care interventions, increased data sharing between public health and clinical care systems, and consumer empowerment through greater access to health information. Public health agencies are used to providing a wealth of important information to researchers and clinicians, but through reciprocal participation in a LHS, public health agencies would also be able to access information from researchers and clinicians.

Given the vast benefits of participation in a LHS, it’s puzzling that public health has been largely absent from the LHS conversation. In order to ensure that public health is well situated to take full advantage of an emerging LHS, now is the time to jump in. Public health must add its voice to the discussion by providing expertise and insights into potential financial, technological, policy and legal issues that could constrain complete public health participation in a national LHS.

Through the Public Health and the Learning Health System Meeting, the Network hopes to bring public health into the greater LHS conversation. During the meeting, attendees were educated about the LHS and its relationship to public health. During break-out group sessions, participants identified issues of concern to public health in the areas of technology, policy and law that may present challenges to public health participation in a national scale LHS. The meeting also explored some existing examples of a smaller-scale LHS, such as the Southeast Minnesota Beacon Program. Finally, attendees provided ideas for next steps to promote public health engagement and involvement in developing a LHS.

Materials and presentations from the Public Health and the Learning Health System Meeting can be found on the Network website. The Network is also developing a summary of the conference proceedings, as well as additiona­l follow-up programming to keep the LHS conversation going.

This blog post was prepared by Jennifer Bernstein, J.D., M.P.H., staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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