The COVID-19 pandemic waves have hit hard so many health systems across the world. Learning has been a key variable in their response to this crisis. Whenever health systems have learned – from the experience of the first waves, from other pandemics and from available science and knowledge – they have coped better. However, the costs of learning failures have been high – measured in the devastating loss of lives and livelihoods and the destabilization of economies and entire societies. The importance of learning is not unique to the pandemic. Throughout history, the ability of health systems to learn has made the difference between success and failure in responding to health threats, creating the conditions for better health, and implementing health policies and reforms.

Health systems must do what they can to maximize their potential to learn. Building the learning capacity of health systems takes time and the investment of resources. But the benefits far outweigh the financial costs in the form of improved health system functions, greater adaptivity to change and ability to innovate, and ultimately, greater self-reliance.

The pandemic has shown us again that there is no alternative for health systems but to become learning health systems. For this, we need to work collectively towards changing the culture of health systems to become more open to analysis and critique – the best route to improvement. All countries must invest in learning, even if the returns do not seem tangible or immediate, since this is the surest path to stronger health systems in the future.

The 16th Postgraduate Forum that will be held in July 2022 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia will discuss how health systems from multiple countries in Asia and beyond coping and learning during this pandemic, according to the Learning Health System concept.