Healthcare News & Insights

Learning health systems: What they are & how they help patients

The best-performing hospitals treat every patient encounter as an opportunity to learn how to improve the care process. Instead of having a culture focused on secrecy, they promote transparency and the open sharing of information. Many facilities have achieved these objectives by becoming part of a learning health system. 

According to an article in Hospitals and Health Networks, with a learning health system, hospitals and health systems use electronic health records (EHRs) to gather information about patients that’s used to provide personalized treatment. The data’s also used to figure out new best practices through research.

Information is typically pulled from multiple health systems to create more evidence-based care standards for patients with similar conditions or illnesses.

One hospital’s success

The efforts of a children’s hospital in Ohio, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, prove that learning health systems can have significant positive results for patients.

Nationwide Children’s partnered with Ohio State University for a pilot program called Learn From Every Patient. It used information stored in the hospital’s EHR to refine treatment practices for a group of children with cerebral palsy.

After closely studying the health data related to these young patients, and using it to drive quality improvement initiatives for cerebral palsy care, Nationwide Children made several changes designed to boost quality of care.

Example: Every child with cerebral palsy used to automatically receive an X-ray of their hip. However, doctors started questioning whether this was the best move for all patients with cerebral palsy. Eventually, when looking at data from the learning system, they discovered that the X-rays didn’t improve outcomes for patients with milder forms of the illness. So they cut back on the X-rays for these patient.

Changes like these made the learning health system successful overall. In the first year of the initiative, there was a 43% total reduction in inpatient days for the children in the program. Inpatient admissions dropped by 27% and emergency department visits fell by 30 percent. There was also a 29% decrease in urgent care visits for these patients.

Most importantly, the system managed to reduce the healthcare costs for treating these patients by 25%. This created a 6-to-1 return on investment for its expenses.

Essential elements

Hospitals that want to achieve similar success with creating a learning health system should have robust EHRs with the capability of sharing information between multiple providers and facilities, as well as staff who are open to the idea of changing their care processes based on the outcome of any research projects.

Learning health systems can only work if staff fully support their use, and they’re operating in a hospital with a culture that prioritizes learning new information to regularly improve patient care.

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