Submission Type

Empirical Research


Learning Health Care; Ethics; Comparative Effectiveness Research; Organizational Innovation


Introduction: There is increased interest in transitioning to a “learning health care system” (LHCS). While this transition brings the potential for significant benefits, it also presents several ethical considerations. Identifying the ethical issues faced by institutions in this transition is critical for realizing the goals of learning health care so that these issues can be anticipated and, where possible, resolved.

Methods: 29 semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with leaders within 25 health care institutions. Respondents were recruiting using purposive sampling, targeting institutions considered as LHCS leaders. All interviews were audiorecorded and transcribed. NVIVO10 software was used to support qualitative analysis.

Results: Respondents described seven ethical challenges: (1) ethical oversight of learning activities; (2) transparency of learning activities to patients; (3) potential tensions between improving quality and reducing costs; (4) data sharing and data management; (5) lag time between discovery and implementation; (6) transparency to patients about quality; and (7) randomization for quality improvement initiatives.

Discussion: To move towards LHCS, several ethical considerations require further attention, including: the continued appropriateness of the research-treatment distinction; policy frameworks for privacy and data sharing; informing patients about learning activities; obligations to share data on quality; and the potential for trade-offs between quality improvement and cost control.

Conclusion: To our knowledge, this is the first project to ask leaders from health care systems committed to ongoing learning about the ethical issues they have faced in this effort. Their experiences can provide guidance on relevant ethical issues, and what might be done to resolve them.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.