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May 2, 2023 . Sandy Bielawa

We are Ursa Health: meet Liz Costa

Ursa Health Blog

Visit Ursa Health's blog to gain healthcare data analytics insights or to get to know us a little better. Read more ...

What is your role, and what do you do?

I am a senior director of analytics engineering. Basically, I build stuff. While I’m stepping into some of the shoes worn by Andy Hackbarth (founder and chief product officer), I’m also helping to define the role a bit for the company. Industry wide, analytics engineering—like data science before it—means different things to different people. For me, it predominantly means that you're trying to take source data and transform it in such a way that it becomes reusable for many different types of analyses, and you're trying to find ways to simplify it for the end user so they know exactly what the data is trying to tell them.

Can you tell me a little about your background?

The bulk of my experience has been at athenahealth. I stayed there for nine years because there was always a new and interesting problem to solve and a different approach to solving it. You could learn without necessarily needing to find a new job to challenge yourself. So I touched on a little bit of everything in healthcare: clinical-type work, revenue cycle projects, and more.

What did you study in school?

I have a degree in human biology. I was really interested in bacteriology and virology but knew I didn't want to do bench science. Then, when I was studying abroad, I had a life-changing experience working in a village in India, where we were teaching teenage girls in the community about basic midwifery skills to reduce maternal mortality rates.

This was many years ago now, but I remember having a moment of realization that this was a cool intersection of all these areas that I'm interested in: improving health outcomes, improving access to care, and more. When I came home, I wanted to figure out how to do this work. So I learned about public health late in my college career, took a little time off right after I graduated, and then got a masters in international public health.

I like to joke that I did the typical 20-something thing of thinking I was going to go into this field and change the world. I still love that idea, but the more practical side of life intervened. Here in the Boston area, I've been able to find a thread of working with refugee populations or other diverse populations in a lot of my roles before I went to athenahealth, so I could scratch the itch without working and living internationally.

It's such an interesting field to explore, that side of the healthcare ecosystem.

Healthcare is so much more policy than what people tend to think of as medicine. It pertains to doctors and nurses, but it is really so much more than them, because they're just players in the system—unwillingly, usually. The idealist in me thinks we just need to go single payer, but you can't just throw a switch like that in society these days. So how do we make successful incremental change? It’s hard, and I worry sometimes that it will only get worse before it gets better. I read a lot about healthcare, and the stories can be really discouraging.

Even medical schools contribute to the problems. For example, medical students are taught to intervene and protect, but a lot of them are struggle with the conversation of when to stop interventions. They think they can and should fix anything because they’re good doctors. How do you weigh quality of life issues and determine what’s excessive intervention? What’s the balance? We don't do a good job of determining this as a society.

Which is why, when I was thinking of my next move after athenahealth, there were moments when I considered going into a different, simpler industry, but I don’t think I could care enough about it. I love the complexity of healthcare, and I think it's interesting to work on trying to make things even just a little bit better out there.

Everybody interacts with the healthcare system and with healthcare policy, and so much of both the delivery of medicine and the kind of policies we choose to enact in the country rely on data. There's an intersection between the subject matter I'm very interested in and my knowledge that data can bring value to it, because there is a lot of data but it's not all very good . Efforts will continue to make that data more usable so we can make sound decisions, and I hope to continue to have a seat at that table and actually drive the system toward change.

Why did you decide to work for Ursa Health?

I knew Dan [Rosen, vice president of Customer Success] and Andria [Muscatiello, senior director, Customer Success] from our past lives at athenahealth, and they both gave it a resounding seal of approval.

And I had a really great conversation with Andy. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and I was flying out the next morning. We kind of joked that it wasn’t really an interview but a conversation. And there were so many points where I thought, that’s cool, he’s doing things and thinking about data in the same way I do. It just sounded really exciting to come to a place where they think about structuring and using data in similar ways.

What's the best part about working here?

The team is just great. Everybody has interesting perspectives. Everybody has interesting backgrounds. It’s a small but mighty group, and you just want to keep working harder yourself because you don't want to let anyone else down. 
As I've gotten a little older, who I work with matters just as much as the type of work I'm doing, because I'm going to spend hours in front of a computer away from my kids. So I want to enjoy the folks I work with and feel like I’m learning something and contributing.

What’s the one thing your colleagues would be surprised to know about you?

Most people are surprised to know that I lived on a cruise ship for 100 days as it completely circumnavigated the globe.

Tell me more, please!

I did a program called Semester at Sea. We lived on a cruise ship that had classrooms. Every day you were at sea, you were doing normal classroom stuff. And then when you were in port in a country,  you got about a week to explore and do whatever you wanted. I got to sail from Brazil to South Africa with Desmond Tutu. They always brought on lecturers in between, and he sailed a couple of times and happened to be on my voyage. And then I was part of the largest group of Americans since the 1980s to enter the country of Burma in 2005. It was an insanely eye opening experience, and I wish I could drop everything and do it again.

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