In a recent post by Andy Oram on EMR and EHR titles “Exploring the Role of Clinical Documentation: a Step Toward EHRs for Learning” he introduced me to the idea of what he called a Learning Health Care System. Here’s his description:

Currently a popular buzzword, a learning health care system collects data from clinicians, patients, and the general population to look for evidence and correlations that can improve the delivery of health care. The learning system can determine the prevalence of health disorders in an area, pick out which people are most at risk, find out how well treatments work, etc. It is often called a “closed loop system” because it can draw on information generated from within the system to change course quickly.

I really love the concept and description of a learning healthcare system. Unfortunately, I see so very little of this in our current EHR technology and that’s a travesty. However, it’s absolutely the way we need to head. Andy add this insight into why we don’t yet have a learning health care system:

“Vendors need to improve the ability of systems to capture and manage structured data.” We need structured data for our learning health care system, and we can’t wait for natural language processing to evolve to the point where it can reliably extract the necessary elements of a document.

While I agree that managed structured data would be helpful in reaching the vision of a learning healthcare system, I don’t think we have to wait for that to happen. We can already use the data that’s available to make our EHRs smarter than they are today. Certainly we can’t do everything that we’d like to do with them, but we can do something. We shouldn’t do nothing just because we can’t do everything.

Plus, I’ve written about this a number of times before, but we need to create a means for the healthcare system to learn and for healthcare systems to be able to easily share that learning. This might be a different definition of leaning than what Andy described. I think he was referencing a learning system that learns about the patient. I’m taking it one step further and we need a healthcare system that learns something about technology or data to be able to easily share that learning with other outside healthcare systems. That would be powerful.

What are your thoughts on what Andy calls a popular buzzword: A Learning Health Care System? Are we heading that direction? What’s holding us back?

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