Karen J. Wernli, PhD

“I consider patients the core of my research.”

Karen  J. Wernli, PhD

Associate Investigator, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute

Areas of focus:


Karen Wernli, PhD, is a cancer epidemiologist and health services research whose research focuses incorporating patient centered outcomes for on improving cancer care from diagnosis to survivorship. Her works spans many types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, lung, and ovarian.

Dr. Wernli leads a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) project that compared breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to mammography for women already treated for breast cancer. Called SIMBA (Surveillance Imaging Modalities for Breast Cancer Assessment), the 3-year study used data from the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC) and engaged patients and stakeholders to determine the best information for patient and physician decision-making. Dr. Wernli’s team then translated that information into a new decision aid for women who have had breast cancer. PCORI has recognized this work nationally and pointed to SIMBA as a model for effective patient engagement.

Dr. Wernli’s other breast cancer projects include a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded study to examine trends and outcomes related to the mandatory notification of breast density that has been enacted in many states. With colleagues at Georgetown University, she is working on another NCI-funded study that is looking at the best ways to inform women about breast cancer risk and options for managing it.

In the Clare Project, Dr. Wernli and colleagues at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) are exploring how adolescent and young adult patients with advanced cancer make medical decisions. The goal is to improve care for young people with advanced-stage cancer by asking them what they need, want, and value.

Dr. Wernli is a co-investigator of KPWHRI’s Colorectal Cancer Screening Registry, which is part of NCI’s Population-based Research Optimizing Screening through Personalized Regimens (PROSPR) program. Through PROSPR, she leads a study looking at colorectal cancer screening in real-world practice. She is also helping Kaiser Permanente Washington develop more effective colorectal cancer prevention strategies.

After training at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dr. Wernli joined KPWHRI in 2009 and began a three-year career development award in comparative effectiveness research (CER) in 2010. In addition to CER, her other areas of expertise include:

  • patient-centered outcomes research,
  • patient and stakeholder engagement,
  • observational study design, and
  • adolescent and young adult populations.

Dr. Wernli has published more than 75 peer-reviewed manuscripts in leading journals and regularly serves as a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health.

Research interests and experience

  • Cancer

    Breast, colorectal, ovarian, and endometrial cancer; screening and surveillance; survivorship; patient-centered care; biostatistics; mammography; mammographic breast density; systematic reviews

  • Health Services & Economics

    Comparative effectiveness research; health outcomes research

  • Preventive Medicine

    Cancer screening and surveillance

  • Patient-Centeredness

    Patient engagement, stakeholder engagement, qualitative research methods

  • International Health

    Textile workers in China

Recent publications

Lee CI, Zhu W, Onega TL, Germino J, O’Meara ES, Lehman CD, Henderson LM, Haas JS, Kerlikowske K, Sprague BL, Rauscher GH, Tosteson ANA, Alford-Teaster J, Wernli KJ, Miglioretti DL. The effect of digital breast tomosynthesis adoption on facility-level breast cancer screening volume. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2018 Sep 20:W1-W7. doi: 10.2214/AJR.17.19350. [Epub ahead of print].

Figueroa Gray M, Ludman EJ, Beatty T, Rosenberg AR, Wernli KJ. Balancing hope and risk among adolescent and young adult cancer patients with late-stage cancer: a qualitative interview study. J Adolesc Young Adult Oncol. 2018 Aug 10. doi: 10.1089/jayao.2018.0048. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Greene SM, Brandzel S, Wernli KJ. From principles to practice: real-world patient and stakeholder engagement in breast cancer research. Perm J. 2018;22. pii: 17-232. doi: 10.7812/TPP/17-232. PubMed

Onega T, Zhu W, Weiss JE, Goodrich M, Tosteson ANA, DeMartini W, Virnig BA, Henderson LM, Buist DSM, Wernli KJ, Kerlikowske K, Hubbard RA. Preoperative breast MRI and mortality in older women with breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2018 Mar 7. pii: 10.1007/s10549-018-4732-z. doi: 10.1007/s10549-018-4732-z. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed


Healthy Findings Blog

Personal experiences inspire study of young adult patients and caregivers

Drs. Rosenberg and Wernli lead team with first-hand knowledge of complex conditions and care.

Read it in Healthy Findings.

KPWHRI In the Media

Breast Cancer

Is breast MRI better at finding second breast cancers than mammograms alone for breast cancer survivors?

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Research summary, July 27, 2017

Young Adults with Cancer

What young adults with advanced cancer are telling The Clare Project

Patients, families, caregivers, and providers are talking to researchers about care decisions and social media communities. Here’s what they’re saying.

Read about it in Healthy Findings.

Latest News

KPWHRI shares in $17 million grant to improve breast screening

National Cancer Institute support continues nation's largest collection of breast imaging data and funds three studies to personalize screening.

Read it in News and Events

Breast Cancer Surveillance

Kaiser Permanente Washington Breast Cancer Surveillance Registry

Kaiser Permanente Washington has been part of the national Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium since 1994. Learn more about the Kaiser Permanente Washington Breast Cancer Surveillance Registry.