Dr Olena Stavrunova was a school girl when the Soviet Union dissolved and her native Ukraine gained sudden independence, and with it a rapid transition to a market economy. As the information floodgates opened, so too did her interest in how other people elsewhere lived.
“I spent the first part of my childhood in this kind of vacuum of information about life in other parts of the world, then all of a sudden there were television, radio and magazines showing us a life that seemed richer, more colourful and with more opportunities,” she recalls.
“A better understanding of how the market economy works was an essential part of this, and my interest was sparked as a student in the new western-style higher education in Ukraine and became a passion during my PhD in Economics at the University of Iowa in the United States.”
Olena began her career as a labour market economist, but the opportunity to work with the team of world-renowned health economists at UTS Business School shifted her focus. She became a key member of that team and a significant contributor to its exceptional research output, and is increasingly recognised as an expert in health economics. Her particular focus is on the main determinants of individual demand for private health insurance, both in Australia and the United States.
“The prevailing theory is that unhealthy people would be more likely to buy health insurance, but in reality in many western health insurance markets we see that healthier people are more likely to have insurance,” she explains.
“Our research into senior consumers in the US found that healthier seniors also tend to have higher cognitive ability and education, and that this explained their higher health insurance holdings. More vulnerable people — those often more in need of insurance — can struggle to navigate the options and fail to purchase supplementary insurance, with potential negative impacts on their health and mortality.”
Having her first child opened Olena’s eyes to the barriers often faced by women in juggling career and family. She says she found the support at UTS invaluable in keeping her career moving forward during this intense time.
“Children put a big tax on female careers; there is rich data from a variety of countries that precisely shows that the gender career gap begins with the birth of a woman’s first child and that they don’t begin to catch up until fifteen years after that first maternity leave,” she says.
“For me, being able to make good use of UTS’s maternity leave — particularly the period of phased return to work that allowed me to ease the transition with a couple of months working part-time — has been really useful, as is the ongoing recognition from senior leadership of the challenges involved in balancing a career while raising a very young child.”
Being able to make good use of UTS’s maternity leave — particularly the period of phased return to work time — has been really useful, as is the ongoing recognition from senior leadership of the challenges involved in balancing a career while raising a very young child.
Olena is well respected within both academic and policy-making circles, her outstanding research contribution an important factor in the UTS Business School’s rapidly mounting reputation as a leader in applied and health economics. Her findings have significant policy implications.
“For example, more targeted financial information and offering counselling to help people understand the choices and benefits could greatly improve access to healthcare for those disadvantaged by a complex system.”
Photography: Andy Roberts