Karen J. Wernli, PhD

“I consider patients the core of my research.”

Karen  J. Wernli, PhD

Group Health Research Institute Assistant Investigator

Areas of focus:


Cancer screening is an important part of preventive medicine, but much is unknown about which screening methods work best for different groups of people. Karen Wernli is helping to narrow this gap through a rigorous research program in screening and prevention that spans breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancer.

An epidemiologist and 10-year veteran of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dr. Wernli joined Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) in 2009 and began a three-year career development award in comparative effectiveness research in 2010. The award’s rich coursework, mentorship, and training opportunities support her goal of answering key questions related to cancer screening and diagnostics.

She is now leading a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) contract to compare breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to mammography for women already treated for breast cancer. There is little evidence to support the use of breast MRI for surveillance when physicians are looking for second breast cancers or recurrences of the first cancer. This 3-year $1.9 million contract engages patients and stakeholders to determine the best information for patient and physician decision-making. She is working with the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC) to evaluate these two technologies. Also through the BCSC, Dr. Wernli leads a study using data on more than 800,000 women aged 40 to 79 to determine if mammographic breast density is linked to the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Dr. Wernli  is a co-investigator of GHRI’s Colorectal Cancer Screening Registry, which is part of the National Cancer Institute’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 and how people’s use of it influences the tests’ effectiveness. She is also helping Group Health develop more effective prevention strategies—examining how patients use its online health risk assessment and comparing the effectiveness of interactive voice response to usual care on colorectal cancer screening rates.

Dr.  Wernli serves as a reviewer for several journals, including the American Journal of Epidemiology and Cancer Epidemiology,  Biomarkers & Prevention. A longtime member of the American Society for Preventive Oncology (ASPO), she was a recipient of the Prevent Cancer Foundation/ASPO Cancer Prevention Fellowship in 2009 and served as  co-chair for the annual meeting workshop with their Young Investigators.

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

Henderson LM, Miglioretti DL, Kerlikowske K, Wernli KJ, Sprague BL, Lehman CD. Breast cancer characteristics associated with digital versus film-screen mammography for screen-detected and interval cancers. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2015 Sep;205(3):676-84. doi: 10.2214/AJR.14.13904.

Li W, Ray RM, Thomas DB, Davis S, Yost M, Breslow N, Gao DL, Fitzgibbons ED, Camp JE, Wong E, Wernli KJ, Checkoway H. Shift work and breast cancer among women textile workers in Shanghai, China. Cancer Causes Control. 2015 Jan;26(1):143-50. doi: 10.1007/s10552-014-0493-0. Epub 2014 Nov 25. PubMed

Gallagher LG, Li W, Ray RM, Romano ME, Wernli KJ, Gao DL, Thomas DB, Checkoway H. Occupational exposures and risk of stomach and esophageal cancers: update of a cohort of female textile workers in Shanghai, China. Am J Ind Med. 2015 Jan 21. doi: 10.1002/ajim.22412. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Wieneke AE, Bowles EJ, Cronkite D, Wernli KJ, Gao H, Carrell D, Buist DS. Validation of natural language processing to extract breast cancer pathology procedures and results. J Pathol Inform. 2015 Jun 23;6:38. doi: 10.4103/2153-3539.159215. eCollection 2015. PubMed


GHRI In the Media

'Glad you're listening': SIMBA study brings patients' voices to the fore

Design power: Patients play researchers in drug trials

Wall Street Journal, Sep. 29, 2014