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

Breen N, Skinner CS, Zheng Y, Inrig S, Corley DA, Beaber EF, Garcia M, Chubak J, Doubeni C, Quinn VP, Haas JS, Li CI, Wernli KJ, Klabunde CN; PROSPR consortium. Time to follow-up after colorectal cancer screening by health insurance type. Am J Prev Med. 2019 May;56(5):e143-e152. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2019.01.005. PubMed

Haas CB, Phipps AI, Hajat A, Chubak J, Wernli KJ. Time to fecal immunochemical test completion for colorectal cancer screening. Am J Manag Care. 2019 Apr;25(4):174-180. PubMed

Knerr S, Bowles EJA, Leppig KA, Buist DSM, Gao H, Wernli KJ. Trends in BRCA test utilization in an integrated health system, 2005-2015. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2019 Feb 8. pii: 5310095. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djz008. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Arasu VA, Miglioretti DL, Sprague BL, Alsheik NH, Buist DSM, Henderson LM, Herschorn SD, Lee JM, Onega T, Rauscher GH, Wernli KJ, Lehman CD, Kerlikowske K. Population-based assessment of the association between magnetic resonance imaging background parenchymal enhancement and future primary breast cancer risk. J Clin Oncol. 2019 Jan 9:JCO1800378. doi: 10.1200/JCO.18.00378. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed


Healthy Findings Blog

Young adults with cancer speak about balancing hope and risk

The first Clare Project study asked about values and care preferences. Project leaders are now building on that foundation.

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

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.

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.

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.