How PCORI’s Research Will Answer the Real World Questions Patients Are Asking

As a physician, I know the challenge of helping patients determine which health care options might work best for them given their personal situation and preferences.

Too often they — and their clinicians — must make choices about preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases and health conditions without adequate information. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) was created to help solve this problem — to help patients and those who care for them make better-informed health decisions.

Established by Congress through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as an independent research institute, PCORI is designed to answer real-world questions about what works best for patients based on their particular circumstances and concerns. We do this primarily by funding comparative clinical effectiveness research (CER), studies that compare multiple care options.

But more research by itself won’t improve clinical decision-making. Patients and those who care for them must be able to easily find relevant evidence they can trust. That’s why our mandate is not just to fund high-quality CER and evidence synthesis but to share the results in ways that are meaningful to patients, clinicians and others.

We’re also charged with improving the methods used in conducting those studies and enhancing our nation’s capacity to do such research.

We will be evaluated ultimately on whether the research we fund can change clinical practice and help reduce the variations and disparities that stand between patients and better outcomes. We’re confident that the work we’re funding brings us and the audiences we serve closer to that goal.

Recently, some questions have been raised in health policy circles about our holistic approach to PCORI’s work. That view holds that direct comparisons of health care options — especially those involving high-priced interventions — should be the dominant if not sole focus of PCORI’s research funding approach as a path to limiting the use of expensive, less-effective options.

We agree that discovering new knowledge on how therapies compare with one another is a critical mandate of PCORI and is essential to improving the quality and effectiveness of care.  However, ensuring that patients and those who care for them have timely access to and can use this knowledge, so that they can effectively apply it to improve their decisions, is also very important.

That is the reasoning behind our integrated approach path that addresses the gaps in available evidence, and also studies how best to make the evidence available and usable.

Much of our research portfolio is in fact dedicated to the research that our critics desire. We’re funding studies to answer questions about common, serious conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental illness, which affect millions of Americans.

And the specific topics we’re addressing are recommended and vetted by researchers and the patient and stakeholder communities to whom we’re responsible.

This work will be bolstered by a new series of large pragmatic studies that will compare outcomes between two or more approaches to addressing high priority clinical issues in real-world settings. We also are establishing a national clinical research infrastructure to make it easier and less expensive to conduct these kinds of large studies in diverse patient populations.

By focusing on outcomes and data from real-world settings, we’re more likely to obtain relevant answers to the many important questions patients have.  Consider patients newly diagnosed with cancer. They want to know not just survival rates but the impact of different therapies on their quality of life or ability to work.

Such outcomes matter to patients, but research often fails to address them.

That’s why we’ve made engagement a cornerstone of our research. Every research study we fund must include a plan to engage patients, their clinicians and others across the health care community to ensure the research focuses on practical questions.

Because engagement of this depth is new to many researchers and patients alike, we’re developingmethods to improve our ability to incorporate patients’ perspectives in research. Patient-centered research methods that are transparent and scientifically sound will enhance the credibility and usefulness of the studies we fund.

This integrated approach will provide patients with the right information in the right place at the right time. It recognizes that engagement, methods, infrastructure, and effective dissemination make patient-centered research timely and useful.

We’ve invested more than $464 million in such research to date. About 62 percent of this research funding has focused on CER, with the rest spread across infrastructure (18%), methods (11%), and communication and dissemination research (8%). We expect to commit $1 billion over the next two years to expand this work.

With a foundation for patient-centered research in place, we’re confident our work will provide patients, caregivers, clinicians and others throughout the health care community with the information they need and help to improve health and well-being for all of us.

Joe Selby, MD, MPH, is PCORI’s Executive Director.

Selby, Joe. PCORI’s Research Will Answer Patients’ Real-World Questions, Health Affairs Blog, 25 March 2014. Copyright ©2014 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

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Nortin M Hadler and Robert McNuttJoe SelbyRobert McNuttAl LewisNortin Hadler Recent comment authors
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Nortin M Hadler and Robert McNutt
Nortin M Hadler and Robert McNutt

Dear Dr. Selby, Your goals of teasing clinically meaningful small effects from the observational and systematic studies you describe are certainly understandable given your charge at PCORI, and the present way we conduct research with large data sets. Your expectation that you can accomplish these goals either by broadening the outcomes, targeting the subsets, and/or randomizing the populations are the stuff of contemporary epidemiologic hubris, especially because research continues to use administrative data (because it is easy to get) that lacks clinical nuance (because it is hard to get). This approach stymies our ability to progress in meaningful research. Even… Read more »

Joe Selby

Responses to Drs. Hadler, Lewis, and McNutt: To Dr. Hadler: I agree. Comparative effectiveness studies are often done in situations where expected differences are small or where the expectation is that there is no difference – difficult territory to operate in, but nonetheless important. We also agree that comparative effectiveness research is complementary to and usually follows on the establishment of efficacy and even effectiveness. Three points may offer some comfort. First, a major problem when differences are small is that it’s hard to discern true differences from apparent differences that are due to selection bias (confounding), especially in non-randomized… Read more »

Robert McNutt

The comments to this blog post triggered some thougths that I would like to have critized by this group, especially, PCORI. My comments are informed by my experience; living through massive effortrs to improve research and translation. I have seen state wide research efforts; lived through the cancer cooperatives; was part of several Patient Outcomes ResearchTeams (PORTs) which meta-analyzed everything; to AHRQ as grantee and reviewer; translational reseach centers (61 nation wide and growing), PCORI, and, last, listening to former President Bill Clinton on a golf program. First, we already know what we need to know from the present research… Read more »

Al Lewis
Al Lewis

Joe, it seems like quite literally everything else in ACA designed to reduce costs through engagement has either failed to reduce costs at all and probably increased them instead (PCMH, wellness) or the jury is still out and as Dr. Hadler says (and other researchers have pointed out), the hoped-for effect is so marginal that you need a far larger patient population to prove it.

Perhaps this is just my cycnicism, but how will this be different in getting patients to engage? (I don’t think engagement is an issue in cancer but it certainly is, in lifestyle diseases)

Nortin Hadler
Nortin Hadler

I applaud the premise behind CER and therefore the rationale for PCORI. However, I have grave concerns that the effort is largely doomed by methodological challenges. I expressed these reservations on THCB shortly after the creation of PCORI and nothing has assuaged my concerns to date: https://thehealthcareblog.com/the_health_care_blog/2010/01/comparative-effectiveness-research-and-kindred-delusions.html#more In essence, I don’t think any degree of data torturing can compensate for the marginal efficacy of so many targets for CER. If the efficacy in a carefully selected subset of patients is marginal (NNT>50 or 100 or…), you run the risk of comparative ineffectiveness research. CER only makes sense if it can… Read more »

Michael Millenson

“We will be evaluated ultimately on whether the research we fund can change clinical practice.” And, of course, on how PCORI contributes to the cost-effectiveness of American health care without ever saying those dreaded words. Not an easy mission.

Keep up the good fight, Joe.


Very glad you’re taking a proactive and outward facing role, but think it’s important that you take feedback from sites such as this one and not simply act in a marketing/representative capacity for another Congress/Administration funded healthcare initiative. I appreciate your points about high-quality CER, but think you’re overreaching in saying that there is currently a limited focus on outcomes and real world data – for example, in cancer patients. That was the 1980’s. The last 30yrs have had an explosion of functional and lifestyle outcome measures from both Europe and the US. Fields like Orthopedic surgery are still largely… Read more »

Bubba For President
Bubba For President

1. Let’s evaluate the effective of alternative therapies.

2. Let’s open up the process to the American public year round on the web, not through a form on a dropdown on a menu but through a website dedicated to that purpose.

3. Let’s publish negative findings.