Funding Learning Health System Research: Challenges and Strategies

Michael I. Harrison, Amanda E. Borsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose A growing number of health systems are establishing learning health system (LHS) programs, where research focuses on rapidly improving the health system's internal operations and performance. The authors examine funding challenges facing such initiatives and identify strategies for managing tensions between reliance on external research funding and directly contributing to improvement and learning within the researchers' own system. Method Qualitative case studies of LHS research programs in 5 health systems were performed via 38 semistructured interviews (October 2019-April 2021) with 35 diverse respondents. Inductive and deductive rapid qualitative analysis supported interview, system-level, and cross-system summaries and analysis. Results External funding awards to LHS researchers facilitated some internal improvement and learning, scientific advancements, and the reputation of researchers and their systems, but reliance on external funding also challenged researchers' responsiveness to concerns of system leaders, managers, practitioners, and system needs. Gaps between external funding requirements and internally focused projects arose in objectives, practical applicability, audiences, timetables, routines, skill sets, and researchers' careers. To contribute more directly to system improvement, LHS researchers needed to collaborate with clinicians and other nonresearchers and pivot between long research studies and shorter, dynamic improvement, evaluation, and data analysis projects. With support from system executives, LHS program leaders employed several strategies to enhance researchers' internal contributions. They aligned funded-research topics with long-Term system needs, obtained internal funding for implementing and sustaining practice change, and diversified funding sources. Conclusions To foster LHS research contributions to internal system learning and improvement, LHS program leaders need to manage tensions between concentrating on externally funded research and fulfilling their mission of providing research-based services to their own system. Health system executives can support LHS programs by setting clear goals for them; appropriately staffing, budgeting, and incentivizing LHS researchers; and developing supportive, system-wide teamwork, skill development programs, and data infrastructures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-682
Number of pages10
JournalAcademic Medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.


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