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November 24, 2020 . Sandy Cummings

Meet the founders: Dr. Robin Clarke

Blog 2020

Looking for market insights? Interested in our latest product news & tips? Wanting to get to know Ursa a little better? Read more...

What’s your role at Ursa Health, and what do you do?

I am CEO and also a cofounder. Day to day, I lead the team from an organizational standpoint, focusing on operations, finance, business development, and product vision. And then longer term, I guide the company’s business strategy and am responsible for the forward-looking evolution of the company’s products and services.

Can you share a little about your background?

I was a history major in college and was very interested in international development work because I wanted to have a societal impact. Then, toward the end of college, I decided that I also yearned to have a personal touch in my work, so I landed on medicine as an opportunity to be able to affect individuals while working on important societal-level issues. That meant doing my pre-med classes after college, followed by medical school and a residency in general internal medicine.

During that time, I loved getting to know patients and their families, being able to see the immediate relief of symptoms or the way in which the delivery of information provided solace to people at a very important point in their lives. However, in many ways my care was reactive, not proactive. I felt like the workflow of picking up the chart outside the clinic door, seeing who was in the room, and then responding to whatever they told me was not the way for society to achieve optimal health.

So during residency, I applied for the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, which is a premier health services research training program for physicians post-residency. I did a fellowship there for two years and got my masters in health services research from UCLA School of Public Health. My field of research was how quality of care is defined, measured, and incentivized.

Through that experience, I got very deep into primary care medical home configuration and transformation. In particular, I was interested in understanding how supplementing traditional healthcare with non-healthcare services could lead to better health. I did a lot of work with community health centers and federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), and ended up as a principal investigator on a PCORI project to study the delivery of primary care through these FQHCs.

This work introduced me to some of the leaders of UCLA Health, so as UCLA was entering into the value-based world with its provider group setting up an accountable care organization (ACO), I was recruited to develop its quality and value infrastructure. I was still in practice at the time, so this was another opportunity to blend the more personal clinical impacts of individual patient care with work to support broader populations by better organizing systems of care.

The biggest barrier to doing that effectively, I discovered, was not really the payment structuring and not really the attitudes of physicians. It had more to do with the information that was needed to engage providers in decision-making around identifying the highest-yield opportunities and implementing effective process redesign.

In trying to address that barrier, I linked up with Andy [Hackbarth, another Ursa Health cofounder], who brought database programming and measurement expertise that opened up a wholly new approach. We lived deep in the trenches supporting every specialty across the enterprise at UCLA Health, customizing analytics to help them understand who their patients were, where variation existed in their practice, and how they could focus on certain high-impact areas within their care delivery process to be able to maximize outcomes—broadly and holistically defined across financial, operational, clinical, and patient experience domains.

After doing that work for all those years and encountering every different type of data, different site of care, and different patient type, we looked up and realized we were generating value with a novel approach. And we wondered: If we could scale this approach, could we solve the same data-to-information barrier that held back so many healthcare organizations from achieving their value-based goals?

How did you become one of Ursa’s founders?

What that narrative I just outlined demonstrates is that the driving force behind my stepping away from academic medicine and founding Ursa Health was this desire to deliver societal impact while not becoming detached from the delivery of care. Ursa Health is the next level up in terms of impact: I could be involved in enabling how organizations—providers, health plans, employers, specialty product and services companies—improve their healthcare product.

In many ways, my career was kind of this accidental entrepreneurial story. There was never a decision to say, “Okay, I’m going to get an MBA, and then I’m going to evaluate some potential market for a particular product.” It was always “What is the best way that I can personally impact the most lives,” with each stage of my progression naturally leading to the next.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m a middle child, and I think I’ve brought many of the attributes that you need to be a successful middle child over to my leadership style. There’s this concept of the servant leader, where you support and enable the team from the side rather than from the front. I very much believe in hiring good people who you trust and then trusting them. It’s important to track their programs and initiatives, and to be a colleague and thought partner as they sort through those. At the same time, however, I need to have protected time that allows me to reflect on where we hope to be several years from now so I can introduce the challenging questions that make the team think about not just week-in, week-out execution but also the ways in which their part of the organization can leap forward.

When we’re supporting our organizational customers in rolling out their initiatives, we preach a mindset of continuous improvement, in both the preparation of data and the redesign of a clinical or business function. We’ve made that approach part of the Ursa fabric as well, which means we recognize that we have an opportunity to improve in everything we do. We’re not going to be totally perfect, and no one expects perfection. But there is always an opportunity for studying and learning from what we’ve done to create a process or system that makes the next time all the more efficient or reliably delivered while we remain open to further course corrections.

That is a very beneficial mindset. We, as leaders, don’t look at some task that was not perfectly executed as an opportunity to blame someone for not doing it perfectly but as an opportunity for us all to learn and to grow.

In your opinion, what makes Ursa Health an interesting company?

Our product is not a widget. Instead, we’re selling scalable innovation. We support the production of information upon which a lot of very diverse and novel healthcare ideas can be brought to fruition. Our clients make Ursa Studio their own. They bring it inside their organization and wrap their people, their ideas, and their vision around it.

That means we have the privilege of participating in some of the most transformative efforts taking place across the country, working with some of most passionate people in healthcare. We focus on what we do well, which in turn unlocks our customers so they can do what they do well. And we’re able to hitch our wagon to their successes and celebrate along with them.

For me personally, even though I’m not directly touching patients as if I were a primary care doctor doing a physical exam, I feel like I’m only one or two steps removed from direct patient care and direct innovation by being such a deep, close partner with our customers and their efforts to improve care. It’s very fun to be exposed to so many different parts of the industry, so many different types of companies, and so many diverse business and clinical challenges. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something or get asked about some totally new healthcare topic, and there’s nothing more interesting to me than that.

Every company has struggled in some way because of the pandemic. What impact has it had on Ursa Health?

Ursa was fortunate in a sense compared to many other companies. As a software and data services company, we could continue to deliver our product and support our customers without much operational disruption.
The area where we’ve had to be very thoughtful over the course of 2020 is accommodating the uncertain stresses and challenges that all of our employees as individuals and as family members have experienced. We’ve tried to do everything possible to give people flexibility in their schedules and the resources they need to adjust to any family challenges. We’ve done what we can to make sure work is a happy place to be, that it’s a warm, team-oriented setting.

And finally, in a world where so much seems out of control, it’s comforting when you can see progress in what you’re working on and achieve some of the delight that comes with being successful.

What’s your vision for Ursa Health?

Healthcare as an industry has been moving and will increasingly progress to a state where there’s much more interconnectedness between organizations to deliver new paradigms of care. These organizations range from those that have existed for a long time, where the focus has been largely internal, such as payers and traditional providers, to newly emerging venture-backed, tech-enabled product and service companies that aim to introduce disruptive models of health management. The future is going to be all about this interconnectedness. There will be more specialized initiatives that target certain patient cohorts, transitions of care, pharmaceutical management—essentially every possible sector of the healthcare industry—and there will be new business relationships that create shared incentives for optimizing the achievement of favorable outcomes for each of those targeted areas. These new partnerships will continue and increase over the next 5 to 10 years.

My experience working in a large provider and partnering with plans and vendor companies is that historically these relationships can be quite inefficient in ways that reduce partnership success rates. Many times the inefficiencies’ root cause is the inability to produce clear information to shape the partnership, fuel its execution, and evaluate its success.

I see Ursa Studio as an integrator, a solution that becomes essentially an additional partner that reduces friction, reduces inefficiency, streamlines the flow of data, optimizes the production of needed information, and otherwise makes those innovative partnerships scale and accelerate. This new paradigm is our industry’s call-to-action to optimize the health of society as well as to preserve the country’s finances, and I’m proud that Ursa Health has a meaningful role to play.

As we head into Thanksgiving, what are you most thankful for when you think about what you’ve built here?

I described that we have this very close, deep role with our customers. That is an enormous privilege, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in that role and to share in the enthusiasm that they have for their initiatives. We honor the trust that they have in us with a dedication to helping them succeed in their efforts to transform the healthcare industry.

What is one thing your colleagues would be surprised to know about you?

I’m quite an outstanding dancer. I had a dear friend from college who was a highly gifted dancer, so I had someone I could mimic for several years. I’m nowhere near as good as he is, but I did pick up some moves. It takes me a while to warm up, but once I do and get moving and flowing with it, it gets exciting—and sweaty.

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