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

Miles R, Wan F, Onega TL, Lenderink-Carpenter A, O'Meara ES, Zhu W, Henderson LM, Haas JS, Hill DA, Tosteson ANA, Wernli KJ, Alford-Teaster J, Lee JM, Lehman CD, Lee CI. Underutilization of supplemental magnetic resonance imaging screening among patients at high breast cancer risk. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2018 Jan 17. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2017.6623. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Henderson LM, Hubbard RA, Zhu W, Weiss J, Wernli KJ, Goodrich ME, Kerlikowske K, DeMartini W, Ozanne EM, Onega T. Preoperative breast magnetic resonance imaging use by breast density and family history of breast cancer. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2018 Jan 15. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2017.6428. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Hill DA, Haas JS, Wellman R, Hubbard RA, Lee CI, Alford-Teaster J, Wernli KJ, Henderson LM, Stout NK, Tosteson ANA, Kerlikowske K, Onega T. Utilization of breast cancer screening with magnetic resonance imaging in community practice. J Gen Intern Med. 2017 Dec 6. pii: 10.1007/s11606-017-4224-6. doi: 10.1007/s11606-017-4224-6.[Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Onega T, Weiss JE, Goodrich ME, Zhu W, DeMartini WB, Kerlikowske K, Ozanne E, Tosteson ANA, Henderson LM, Buist DSM, Wernli KJ, Herschorn SD, Hotaling E, O'Donoghue C, Hubbard R. Relationship between preoperative breast MRI and surgical treatment of non-metastatic breast cancer. J Surg Oncol. 2017 Nov 11. doi: 10.1002/jso.24796. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed


KPWHRI In the Media


Finding and recruiting research partners: Lessons from PCORI awardees

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) News, Sep. 1, 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

Healthy Findings Blog

Patient-researcher helps advance care for other breast cancer survivors

Dianne Johnson tells how SIMBA study found room for improvement in information and support after breast cancer treatment.

Read it in Healthy Findings.

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.