A commitment to research has been a part of our organization’s vision from the time it was founded as Group Health Cooperative in 1946, through its acquisition by Kaiser Permanente in February 2017, and beyond.
In fact, Group Health's first mission statement said that the organization would "contribute to medical research."
The organization began its first research project in 1956 with Dr. K. Warner Schaie’s "Seattle Longitudinal Study," an investigation of age-related cognitive changes among Group Health members that continues today. Requests for research access to Group Health enrollees and data increased through the 1960s, prompting the organization to establish the Group Health Research Department in 1969.
In the early 1970s, Group Health contributed to projects with major implications for national health policy. Among these were the RAND Health Insurance Experiment and two demonstration projects—the Model Cities Project and Plan 9 Rural Health Project—both designed to improve health care for low-income people.
In 1975, the medical staff founded the Department of Preventive Care Research, led by Robert S. "Tom" Thompson, MD. This department's early work led to the organization’s Lifetime Health Monitoring Program, Well-Child Visit schedule, and Breast Cancer Screening Program. In 1978, Thompson established the Committee on Prevention, which developed Group Health's first evidence-based clinical guidelines. Also in 1978, the Group Health Board of Trustees adopted the organization's first formal research policy and guidelines, resulting in the current Research Committee and Human Subjects Review Committee.
In 1983, the Group Health Board of Trustees established the Center for Health Studies (CHS), which was later named Group Health Research Institute. With Ed Wagner, MD, MPH, at the helm, the Center's research helped Group Health become a national leader in such areas as breast cancer screening, immunization, smoking cessation, health promotion in seniors, and epidemiology and management of common chronic diseases. Focusing on evidence-based medicine and improved clinical outcomes, Group Health and the Center emerged as key players in transforming the U.S. health care system and helping shape global research priorities, clinical guidelines, and coverage standards.
Group Health continued to expand its research capabilities over the next decade, with CHS grant revenue topping more than $5 million by 1993. Through collaboration with researchers locally, nationally, and internationally, CHS added breadth and depth to its findings, using multi-disciplinary approaches to study larger populations. Among our key partners—then and now—are the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, and several major universities, including the University of Washington (UW), Harvard University, and the University of Michigan.
In 1996, CHS leaders catalyzed the formation of the Health Care Systems Research Network (HCSRN) (formerly HMORN), a 19-member consortium of health plans within integrated health care systems. Through the HCSRN, our researchers work with more than 1,900 scientists nationwide to combine and study data from a diverse population of millions people.
CHS also provided collaborative leadership through its MacColl Institute for Healthcare Innovation (now called the MacColl Center), founded in 1992. MacColl Center staff worked with Group Health to create and pioneer the Chronic Care Model, with funds for development and dissemination coming from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
By the decade's end, Wagner had stepped down from leading CHS to focus on directing the MacColl. Sue Curry, PhD, became the Center's next director as grant revenue exceeded $10 million. CHS welcomed a new director in 2002: Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, previously the medical director of the UW Medical Center.
CHS changed its name to Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) in September 2009, a move intended to boost the organization’s visibility locally and nationally—and to further solidify Group Health's role as a leader in transforming health care.
Over the past decade, the Institute has continued to grow in size and influence — despite an uncertain climate for federally funded research. In addition to traditional and new lines of research, it has focused on further developing the larger organization’s capacity as "a learning health care system" — a place where research influences practice and practice influences practice.
Research on Group Health innovations such as shared decision-making for preference-sensitive conditions, and its opioid risk-mitigation initiative are recent examples of successful collaborations between the organization’s clinical leaders and scientists in developing our learning health care system. Others include ongoing efforts to develop more patient-centered models of primary and specialty care and to continually improve strategies for cancer screening. This work, along with our traditional lines of federally funded research, continues to serve our mission to improve health and health care for all.
Group Health signed an acquisition agreement with Kaiser Permanente in 2016 and began work to become the eighth region of this large, not-for-profit health plan. With this change, our Institute prepared to become part of Kaiser Permanente’s research network. In February 2017, it changed its name to Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.
The transition gave us new opportunities to contribute to the larger system's operating plan, including the launch of a Learning Health System Program, which the region funds to advance the use of research capabilities to continually provide better care for our members.
The last few years have also brought an influx of new scientific investigators, including those with special interests in research on social determinants of health and implementation science. Meanwhile, we continue to focus on improving care for health problems affecting millions--issues such as addiction, cancer, infectious disease, and chronic conditions like heart disease, depression, Alzheimer's disease, and more.
In August 2018, following Dr. Larson's decision to step away from his leadership role to concentrate on his own research projects, the organization began a nationwide search for his successor.
On June 6, 2019, Rita Mangione-Smith, MD, MPH, was named as Kaiser Permanente Washington's new vice president for research and innovation and KPWHRI's executive director. Dr. Mangione-Smith is a pediatrician/scientist with extensive expertise in quality improvement and health systems from her leadership posts at Seattle Children's and the UW School of Medicine.
2020 was the year that COVID-19 took the world by storm. KPWHRI was at the forefront of testing vaccines to ward off the disease — most notably leading the first-ever clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine. The institute also helped to pioneer surveillance models to analyze and track how the novel coronavirus spread. And we worked with colleagues in the Kaiser Permanente Washington health system to devise innovations that let patients access needed health care while limiting exposure to the virus. Our efforts to understand, prevent, diagnose, and treat COVID-19 continue, with ongoing research into vaccines, medications, and forecasts, as well as the impact of the virus on other health conditions.
2020 was also a year of unprecedented social change, and KPWHRI continues to pursue research that addresses social determinants of health. We’re helping communities and health organizations make care more equitable, accessible, and effective. And we’re seeking ways to reduce ethnic and racial disparities in care.
When we say that our institute does practical research to help people like you and your family stay healthy, what do we mean? The short answer: We study what works — and what doesn't — to achieve the most important outcome for people everywhere: good health.
KPWHRI responded to the COVID-19 hurricane with actions to improve health worldwide.
Explore 10 ways that Kaiser Permanente Washington research has advanced health and health care this year.
Kaiser Permanente Washington research tackled problems like obesity, suicide—and care that doesn’t promote health.
Efforts to improve flu prediction, vaccine awareness, cancer screening, and back pain treatment were among KPWHRI’s most compelling stories last year.