Meet the tech exec and the neuroscientist joining forces to disrupt women's healthcare

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Before they met each other, Laura A. Pace, MD, PhD, and Fidji Simo belonged to very different industries. Now, they've joined forces to found the Metrodora Institute, an integrated women's neuroimmune clinic and research center.

Dr. Pace is a gastroenterologist with a PhD in neuroscience. On the other hand, Ms. Simo used to run the Facebook app, and more recently became CEO of the grocery delivery service Instacart. They've been united through their passion for advancing women's health and shaking up traditional healthcare models. Along with Dr. Pace's husband, James Hemp, PhD, they founded the Metrodora Institute. The institute operates both a clinic and research center and focuses on delivering integrated treatment options for women with multisystem, neuroimmune disorders. Leveraging Dr. Pace's clinical knowledge and deep research experience and Ms. Simo's creative tech background, the co-founders aim to create a blueprint for treating complex health problems. Becker's sat down with both of them to discuss Metrodora:

Question: What is the problem with women's neuroimmune health in our current healthcare system?

Dr. Laura Pace: What I was experiencing clinically trying to care for these patients with these sort of complex disorders was that there isn't a recognized name that encompasses everything that they have going on.

Fidji Simo: I got diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which everybody assumes is a cardiac disease but when you take a step back, it's actually a nervous system disease usually triggered by an immune system problem. Even the name doesn't reflect what the condition is.

LP: These patients are trying to navigate a very difficult system, trying to connect specialists in all these different areas who aren't talking to each other, so the patients are having to coordinate this care. The great majority of individuals affected by this are women. When they go to their doctor and say, "I have symptoms that affect all these different body systems," [they are] much more likely to be told, "Oh, you're just anxious; oh, you're just tired or overworked."

FS: I realized that with all the privilege I had of having been educated, having access to the best doctors, I still had to bring my husband to most medical consults, just so he could confirm to the doctor that I was not a crazy lady and in fact I was fainting multiple times.

Q: Why did you decide to found the clinic?

LP: From a clinical perspective, we had to do it; no one else was. We have inadequate research in the space because it's not well-defined. No one's taking the lead, there aren't datasets of patients that people can study, so what you have is this cycle of neglect for these disease states.

FS: The thing we hold the most true is that we believe women. We believe when they say they have pain, it's real and we don't believe that science has all the answers. We're going to work with patients to find out these answers.

Q: How will the institute work? What roles will each of you play on both the clinical and research side of the institute?

FS: We combine a for-profit with a nonprofit. My role on the foundation side is to raise awareness of the problem and try to attract donors, so that we can fund even more of the research. There's a lot of technological innovation happening in the field that I get to see every day working in Silicon Valley, and yet very often that technological innovation doesn't make it into academia. So for us, it was really important to bring all of our different expertise together and look at every field possible where we could accelerate the path to a solution.

LP: For the clinical component, we're going to have neurologists, gastroenterologists, immunologists, rheumatologists, pain specialists, geneticists. We're also incorporating other therapies like physical, occupational and nutrition therapy so that patients feel supported while we're working on creating better therapies and marching toward a cure. 

Q: How will you ensure you treat patients equitably?

LP: One of the big things was taking insurance, because a lot of people said, "Oh, you can do this with concierge medicine," but that actually leaves out a huge part of the population who can't afford that. So our plan is to have a very large telehealth platform so that you don't just come to Metrodora and get a diagnosis and then have to go back to your other clinicians to manage your care, we're actually going to be able to do that no matter where you live, giving a continuity of care that otherwise wouldn't exist.

Q: What stage is Metrodora in now?

LP: I spend most of my time right now actually space planning and bringing on more clinicians. We're finding people who really want to work in a different model, who want to work collaboratively and really want to care for patients.

FS: While the clinic is going to open in the middle of next year, the research has already started. We're putting together a research agenda for where we want to go further and finding the right partners for that.

Q: What do you see for the future of the clinic?

LP: We want to build a medical home for patients who don't have answers and that need integrated care and better therapies. We're working toward a cure and want to train the next generation of scientists that will focus on this space. The goal is to eventually have clinics distributed around the country and to help clinicians who think there is a different way to practice medicine and to bring this model to different disease spaces.

FS: Yeah I think it's really creating a blueprint for how these diseases should be treated and honestly, probably how a lot more diseases should be treated, especially when it comes to diseases that primarily impact women.

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