The Science of Learning Health Systems: Scoping Review of Empirical Research

JMIR Med Inform. 2022 Feb 23;10(2):e34907. doi: 10.2196/34907.


Background: The development and adoption of a learning health system (LHS) has been proposed as a means to address key challenges facing current and future health care systems. The first review of the LHS literature was conducted 5 years ago, identifying only a small number of published papers that had empirically examined the implementation or testing of an LHS. It is timely to look more closely at the published empirical research and to ask the question, Where are we now? 5 years on from that early LHS review.

Objective: This study performed a scoping review of empirical research within the LHS domain. Taking an "implementation science" lens, the review aims to map out the empirical research that has been conducted to date, identify limitations, and identify future directions for the field.

Methods: Two academic databases (PubMed and Scopus) were searched using the terms "learning health* system*" for papers published between January 1, 2016, to January 31, 2021, that had an explicit empirical focus on LHSs. Study information was extracted relevant to the review objective, including each study's publication details; primary concern or focus; context; design; data type; implementation framework, model, or theory used; and implementation determinants or outcomes examined.

Results: A total of 76 studies were included in this review. Over two-thirds of the studies were concerned with implementing a particular program, system, or platform (53/76, 69.7%) designed to contribute to achieving an LHS. Most of these studies focused on a particular clinical context or patient population (37/53, 69.8%), with far fewer studies focusing on whole hospital systems (4/53, 7.5%) or on other broad health care systems encompassing multiple facilities (12/53, 22.6%). Over two-thirds of the program-specific studies utilized quantitative methods (37/53, 69.8%), with a smaller number utilizing qualitative methods (10/53, 18.9%) or mixed-methods designs (6/53, 11.3%). The remaining 23 studies were classified into 1 of 3 key areas: ethics, policies, and governance (10/76, 13.2%); stakeholder perspectives of LHSs (5/76, 6.6%); or LHS-specific research strategies and tools (8/76, 10.5%). Overall, relatively few studies were identified that incorporated an implementation science framework.

Conclusions: Although there has been considerable growth in empirical applications of LHSs within the past 5 years, paralleling the recent emergence of LHS-specific research strategies and tools, there are few high-quality studies. Comprehensive reporting of implementation and evaluation efforts is an important step to moving the LHS field forward. In particular, the routine use of implementation determinant and outcome frameworks will improve the assessment and reporting of barriers, enablers, and implementation outcomes in this field and will enable comparison and identification of trends across studies.

Keywords: empirical research; evaluation; health care system; health system; implementation science; learning health care systems; learning health systems; medical informatics; review.

Publication types

  • Review