Comparative Health Systems Research among Kaiser Permanente and Other Integrated Delivery Systems: A Systematic Literature Review


Jared Lane K Maeda, PhD, MPH; Karen M Lee; Michael Horberg, MD, MAS


Perm J 2014 Summer;18(3):66-77 [Full Citation]

Editor's note: For more on research and comparative health systems, please see the editorial: A Commentary on "Comparative Health Systems Research among Kaiser Permanente and Other Integrated Delivery Systems: A Systematic Literature Review" available at:


Context: Because of rising health care costs, wide variations in quality, and increased patient complexity, the US health care system is undergoing rapid changes that include payment reform and movement toward integrated delivery systems. Well-established integrated delivery systems, such as Kaiser Permanente (KP), should work to identify the specific system-level factors that result in superior patient outcomes in response to policymakers' concerns. Comparative health systems research can provide insights into which particular aspects of the integrated delivery system result in improved care delivery.

Objective: To provide a baseline understanding of comparative health systems research related to integrated delivery systems and KP.

Design: Systematic literature review.

Methods: We conducted a literature search on PubMed and the KP Publications Library. Studies that compared KP as a system or organization with other health care systems or across KP facilities internally were included. The literature search identified 1605 articles, of which 65 met the study inclusion criteria and were examined by 3 reviewers.

Results: Most comparative health systems studies focused on intra-KP comparisons (n = 42). Fewer studies compared KP with other US (n = 15) or international (n = 12) health care systems. Several themes emerged from the literature as possible factors that may contribute to improved care delivery in integrated delivery systems.

Conclusions: Of all studies published by or about KP, only a small proportion of articles (4%) was identified as being comparative health systems research. Additional empirical studies that compare the specific factors of the integrated delivery system model with other systems of care are needed to better understand the "system-level" factors that result in improved and/or diminished care delivery.


Rising health care costs,1 wide variation in quality,2 and increased patient complexity led to passage of the Affordable Care Act,3 which has resulted in the US health care system undergoing rapid changes. These changes include payment reform (ie, value-based purchasing, bundled payments)4 and movement toward integrated delivery systems, such as accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical homes.5,6 Because the current US health care system performs poorly relative to those of other countries, alternative models of care delivery have been proposed.5,7

Some of the inefficiencies of the current US health care delivery system stem from the growth of new and expensive medical technologies and the fee-for-service payment of physicians.8 Although physicians aim to provide patient care on the basis of scientific evidence, financial considerations may influence their treatment decisions. Replacement of fee-for-service with capitated payment has been proposed as one way to improve the efficiency of health care delivery. However, changing the physician payment structure by itself may not be enough to achieve the desired outcome. Previous research has shown that although prospective payment has slowed the growth of health care spending at the medical group level, similar results have not been achieved among individual or small practices.8 Physician practices therefore may need to be reorganized and integrated across multispecialty groups and hospitals to be responsive to new payment methods. Thus, health care reform efforts also may need to focus on redesigning integrated systems of care.7

Integrated delivery systems are a model of health care involving an organized, coordinated, and collaborative network that brings together various physicians to deliver coordinated care and a continuum of services to a given patient population.7 Integrated delivery systems are clinically and fiscally accountable for the health status and outcomes for the population served, and they have systems to manage and to improve clinical outcomes. Key attributes of successful integrated delivery systems have been suggested.7 These attributes include: 1) shared values and goals, 2) patient-centeredness and a focus on population health, 3) coordination of care across a continuum of health care services and settings, 4) physician financial incentives that are aligned with patients' goals, 5) use of evidence-based practices, 6) electronic health records (EHR) that are accessible and shared by all physicians to track patients across a continuum, 7) the right mix of primary care and specialist physicians and appropriate medical equipment to serve the given population, and 8) continuous innovation and learning to improve the value of care.

A previous report highlighted that tightly integrated delivery systems with their own health plan may serve as a potential model of high-performing health care systems because the insurance function of these systems allows for greater flexibility and aligned incentives, and helps deliver high-value care.9 More specifically, Kaiser Permanente (KP), the largest nonprofit integrated delivery system in the US, may serve as a model of a high-performing health care system because of several unique aspects. KP serves vari­ous geographic populations in the US, including California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington, with more than nine million active members in 2013. Patients in the KP system receive comprehensive, multidisciplinary health care, including all medical and surgical specialties as well as pharmacy, radiology, and laboratory services. In many geographic Regions, KP owns its hospitals; in the other Regions, KP has contracts with preferred hospitals. The population in KP is representa­tive of the states they serve; data indicate that members overall are similar to the general population regarding age, sex, and race/ethnicity, with only slight underrepresentation of those in lower and higher income and educa­tion categories.10-12

Despite these key features, important questions remain about the "best practices" of integrated delivery systems that achieve superior outcomes. Policymakers are increasingly demanding high-quality research regarding which specific aspects of the integrated delivery model result in superior patient outcomes. For example, there are essential questions regarding how integrated systems are able to coordinate care among different specialties and how the use of information technology and clinical decision support systems are able to support transformational care delivery.7 Consequently, well-established integrated delivery systems, such as KP, should work to identify the specific system-level factors or confluence of factors that improves such services, as well as access, quality, and other such outcomes in an integrated delivery system. The answer to these fundamental questions may serve as a platform to inform and to guide emerging models of care delivery such as accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical homes.

Through a better understanding for which key systems and processes in integrated delivery systems work and the mechanisms by which they function, this knowledge may be translated and disseminated to the larger US health care delivery system. Comparative health systems research involves a comparison of the different approaches used by systems to organize and deliver health care services for a given population. Thus, comparative health systems is one area of research that may be able to provide valuable insights to policymakers and practitioners regarding which particular aspects of the integrated delivery system model result in improved care delivery and patient outcomes.

In response to policymakers' growing interest in this area, KP has embarked on a research agenda for comparative health systems. Therefore, the objective of this literature review was to examine the existing published studies on comparative health systems that relate to integrated delivery systems and KP, to obtain a baseline understanding of the state of comparative health systems research that can provide foundational knowledge. We also sought to identify, to quantify, and to classify the literature in this area.


To gain an understanding of the universe of research studies published on comparative health systems, we conducted a literature search on PubMed and the internal KP Publications Library. The KP Publications Library is a unique, full text searchable database of publications authored or coauthored by KP staff, including investigators, clinicians, and administrators, regardless of journal. The database contains 10,000 records describing journal articles, book chapters, books, letters, and commentaries. The library does not include posters, presentations, or published abstracts. In both literature searches, we sought to include existing studies that compared KP as a system or organization with other health care systems or organizations, or across KP facilities internally, in any topic area. We defined comparative health systems research as any study that compared KP as a system with another health system; any study that compared KP's performance with a state or national benchmark; and any study that compared KP's innovations in care delivery with old or previous models of care. We also included intra-KP studies that compared a system of care in or between another KP Region or in or between KP facilities. Any such types of these comparisons between different systems or models of care were defined as the systems of comparison. The search was inclusive of all subject areas, ranging from quality to information technology. We looked for explicit comparisons between KP and similar health care systems. Studies that included aggregated data from KP and other health care systems were excluded because there were no direct system-level comparisons that would allow us to disentangle the different health care systems.

In PubMed, the MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) search terms included Kaiser Permanente and comparative health services (n = 258), comparative health systems (n = 34), comparative integrated systems (n = 14), health services benchmarking (n = 10), health system benchmarking (n = 7), and quality benchmarking (n = 7; Table 1). From the 330 publications, we identified 16 studies involving direct system comparisons, which we categorized into KP to Other US, KP to Other International, and KP to KP (interregional or intraregional KP comparisons). The PubMed search yielded 16 relevant articles that met the criteria of comparative health systems research involving KP (Figure 1).

On the basis of PubMed results and additional refinement, we expanded our search to 20 keywords and topics to discover both external and internal comparisons from our KP Publications Library. The KP Publications Library search was used to find additional articles that may have been missed through the PubMed search because of differences in tagged words or keywords, articles that are not indexed, or delays in indexing.

We limited the final results from the KP Publications Library to the following criteria: 1) publication type: journal article only (no editorials, letters, and commentaries); 2) abstract: no publications without an abstract unless published in the last two months; and 3) date: no publications before 1995 because of the likelihood of lesser relevance.

The comprehensive search using the same 20 search terms in the KP Publications Library generated 1271 unique citations (Table 1). After limiting the search set to the previously stated criteria, 1132 citations required closer review. These studies were manually reviewed, and articles that were previously identified from PubMed were removed. We examined the results, first considering the study title and abstract and then reviewing the full text article, if necessary, to make a determination of appropriateness. Our examination of 1117 KP abstracts and full publications yielded 45 more publications relevant to the topic of comparative health systems research. We also identified 4 publications that were not found through our literature search (because they did not have a KP author listed or had no keyword hits from our search sets) and were provided to us by KP authors or identified through press releases because they were found to be relevant to the overall topic. We reviewed the final set of articles for agreement on inclusion.




In total, the literature search from the 2 comprehensive databases, in addition to publications identified outside our systematic review, resulted in 65 publications for inclusion in this analysis. Table 2 summarizes the included studies of comparative health systems. For each of the studies reviewed, we evaluated the system of comparison, topical area, and condition type. The topical area was the areas of comparison, the condition type was the disease or diseases of study, and the outcomes were the system outputs. The following topical areas were examined: resource use (ie, cost of care, utilization, length of stay); quality (ie, quality-improvement programs, quality performance, processes of care, patient outcomes of care, patient satisfaction); health information technology (ie, management of health information across computer systems); EHR (ie, electronic health information about patients); clinical decision support (ie, system that assists physicians with decision making related to patients); computerized physician order entry (ie, electronic entry of physician treatment orders); telemedicine (ie, telecommunications systems that provide health care across distances); health system performance (ie, health system delivery of care); self-care (ie, patient self-management of condition); disease management (ie, interventions to help patients cope with a condition); pharmacy consultation (ie, pharmacist counseling of patients regarding their medications); care delivery/care coordination (ie, provision and coordination of health care services); registries (ie, collection of data on patients with a specific condition); clinical integration (ie, integration of clinical information and health care services from different entities); patient safety (ie, prevention of medical errors); medication adherence (ie, patients taking medications as prescribed); and team performance (ie, team functioning).

Of all studies published by or about KP, only 4% of articles were identified as being comparative health systems research. The comparative health systems studies that were reviewed tended to focus mostly on quality of care (n = 30) and health information technology/EHR/clinical decision support/telemedicine (n = 18). Diabetes mellitus was also a common focus of the studies reviewed (n = 11).

Most studies identified in the literature search that met the criteria of comparative health systems research were intra-KP studies (interregional or intraregional that were in or between different KP Regions; n = 42).13-54 These studies either compared one KP Region with another for a particular care topic or compared a system of care in a KP Region that had heterogeneous processes among its different medical centers. Fewer studies (n = 15) were identified that compared KP with another US health care system (ie, fee-for-service, health maintenance organization, and/or Veterans Affairs).55-69 In addition, there were 12 studies that compared KP with international health care systems.55,58,62,63,70-77

Among the different topical areas that the comparative health systems studies covered, the most frequently studied topic was quality of care (n = 30)a and articles that related to health information technology/EHR/clinical decision support/telemedicine (n = 18).b Other commonly studied topics included resource use (cost/utilization; n = 16),health systems performance (n = 7),14,59,61,70,72,73,76 and disease management (n = 7).13,15,17,25,36,40,47

On the basis of disease or type of condition, diabetes mellitus was the most frequently studied (n = 11).d Other conditions that were commonly studied included cardiovascular disease (n = 7),16,17,36,40,47,66,69 mental health and substance abuse (n = 6),26,30,32,45,57,67 and asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (n = 4).16,22,35,68

Several themes emerged from the literature as possible factors that may contribute to improved care delivery in integrated delivery systems. Seven studies suggested clinical integration as a possible reason for better performance.19,27,58,61,62,70,74 The use of technology (ie, electronic alerts, health information technology, EHR, secure messaging, remote video technology) was another common attribute cited across studies.e Last, a comprehensive approach to care delivery (ie, multidisciplinary care teams, comprehensive care management, interdisciplinary treatment, multimodal interventions) and self-management were other themes highlighted as possibly improving patient outcomes.f



In our review of the literature on comparative health systems research involving one or more KP entities, we found that most studies to date have focused primarily on intra-KP comparisons. Fewer studies compared KP with other US health care systems or international health care systems. One possible reason for this gap in the literature could be the lack of recognition of an integrated delivery system's ability to deliver high-quality services, the paucity of comparative performance data, and the unwillingness of organizations to share performance data. Furthermore, because most of the US health care system operates under a fee-for-service model, there are a limited number of other similar integrated delivery systems with a health plan component that may serve as suitable comparisons to KP. As a result, there remains much room for growth and additional research in comparative health systems that compare the KP model of care with other US health care systems, including more traditional fee-for-service care models, academic medical centers, Veterans Affairs medical centers, other integrated delivery systems (ie, Intermountain Healthcare based in Salt Lake City, UT; Geisinger Health System headquartered in Danville, PA; Group Health in Seattle, WA), the safety net (federally qualified health centers, community health centers, and free clinics), and international health care systems. Additional research in this area could examine which systems or processes work in improving care delivery and how different systems are able to achieve these outcomes. Improved performance is evidence that key processes contribute to better care. Further investigations into the types of best practices would lead to a more comprehensive understanding of which models or systems of care are most effective.

We also found that the comparative health systems studies we reviewed tended to focus on quality of care and health information technology/EHR/clinical decision support/telemedicine. In addition, some key attributes of integrated delivery systems emerged from the literature as possibly contributing to a higher performance. Clinical integration, the use of technology, comprehensive care, and patient self-management were consistent themes identified as being associated with improved care delivery. These have been areas of emphasis in practice and research in KP, and thus such findings are not surprising. The EHR and population health management programs are considered essential elements of an integrated approach to care that promotes a consistent and reliable care experience.7,9 However, additional research that examines other factors hypothesized to lead to a higher health system performance, such as physician financial incentives, patient-centeredness, and continuous innovation, should be further investigated. Our finding by type of condition revealed that diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease were the most commonly studied, likely because these are common and prevalent conditions and areas of research emphasis. Because most of the comparative health systems studies tended to focus on a limited number of condition types, studies that examine other common types of conditions, such as cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, and joint diseases, would further contribute to the body of literature.

 There are a few limitations to this systematic review. First, our review of the literature from the KP Publications Library was restricted to studies published after 1995 until the most currently available at the time of the literature search. There may have been additional studies that were published before our study period or after our literature search was conducted. Second, we focused only on studies of comparative health systems that compared KP with other systems of care. There may be other comparative health systems studies that did not explicitly include KP as a comparator. We excluded studies that aggregated KP data with other health systems. Despite our best efforts, we acknowledge that we may have missed some articles in our literature search. However, we also asked other researchers at KP, as part of our systematic review, to ensure a complete and comprehensive literature search. Furthermore, this literature review did not attempt to examine or compare the outcomes of the comparative health systems studies. Rather, we sought only to identify, to classify, and to quantify the studies to help guide future research among large integrated delivery systems.


We found that studies published by or about KP rarely included comparative health systems research. Given the changing health care landscape and movement toward integrated care, additional empirical studies that compare the specific factors of the integrated delivery system model with other systems of care (or in KP if there is heterogeneity of such care) may identify the system-level factors that result in more efficient care delivery. Additionally, more work must be done in partnership with similar health care organizations to demonstrate the benefits of integration toward quality, affordability, accessibility, and effectiveness. Such investigations could seek to understand how systems work to improve clinical outcomes and examine what are the key characteristics of successful systems. By developing the capacity to conduct and communicate the outcomes of comparative health systems research, the health care industry will be able to disseminate and translate the best practices that are able to address issues of quality, affordability, access, and effectiveness. It is important for all to gain organizational commitment to address the research questions that compare each different system's performance with rigor and transparency. The knowledge gained from comparative health systems research will enable the dissemination and translation of best practices that can be adopted by the larger US health care delivery system and ensure high-quality, effective care for all.

a References: 13, 16, 18, 19, 21, 23-25, 27, 28, 31, 35, 36, 40, 41, 44-46, 50, 51, 54, 57, 59, 60, 65, 66, 68, 69, 75, 77.
b References: 13, 16, 22, 27, 30, 33-35, 37, 38, 40-43, 46, 48, 49, 63, 68.
c References: 6, 24, 27, 32, 35, 41, 47, 48, 51, 52, 55, 56, 58, 59, 62, 64.
d References: 13, 15, 16, 18, 25, 44, 54, 60, 61, 69, 77.
e References: 13, 16, 22, 30, 34, 38, 42, 43, 46, 49, 63, 70.
f  References: 14, 15, 20, 24-26, 28, 31, 36, 40, 43, 47, 51, 52, 54, 58, 64.

Disclosure Statement

This study was sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente Community Benefits Program in Oakland, CA. The sponsor did not have any role in the conduct of the literature search, in writing of this report, or in the decision to submit for publication.


The authors wish to acknowledge Raymond J Baxter, PhD, for his generous support of this work and Maria Faer, DrPH, for her assistance with the literature search and organization.

Kathleen Louden, ELS, of Louden Health Communications provided editorial assistance.


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