Dr. Anitha Rao of Neurocern. (Credit: Neurocern)
Dr. Anitha Rao of Neurocern. (Credit: Neurocern)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series spotlighting female medical entrepreneurs who serve other women.

Dementia, devastating both to those who have it and the people who love them, disproportionately affects women, who are the majority of both patients and their caretakers. That’s a big reason why neurologist Dr. Anitha Rao cofounded Neurocern, a software company that creates personalized care programs for people with various forms of the disorder.

There are millions of patients to be helped — 47 million women and men globally, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, Rao is one of only 600 neurologists specializing in the disorder. As a physician, she saw clearly the need for an easier way to develop personalized care plans at scale, and stepped up to create it.

She launched Chicago-based Neurocern in 2014 with cofounder Marguerite Manteau-Rao (no relation), a clinical social worker and former dementia caretaker. Both women’s careers and personal experiences drove a shared goal to make it easier to care for dementia patients.

Rao believes it’s important to bring female perspectives to this problem — as women entrepreneurs in science and tech, she and her cofounder are in the minority. After all, when it comes to dementia, she has said that, “if people want to do an intervention in dementia, you need to start with women.”

The Work

In 2008, Rao earned her doctorate from the University of Toledo and, in 2009, a master’s degree in medical anthropology with a focus on dementia and aging from Case Western University. It was at Case Western that she learned how significant of a public health problem dementia was — and still is — and embarked on her current path.

After several years as a physician, Rao completed a fellowship program at the University of California in San Francisco in 2014 that focused on dementia and behavioral neurology. There, in addition to learning more about the disorder, she came to view treatment options from a Silicon Valley-inspired angle. “Being around the tech scene, it was the environment for that type of tech product to be built.”

At that time, she met Manteau-Rao through a mutual colleague, and the two quickly got to talking about their shared interest in helping patients with dementia as well as their families. Combining their medical and social work perspectives allowed the two women to “build a solution that really fills the needs of two different areas of the dementia journey,” that of the patient and the caretaker.

Rao says her cofounder saw “the frustration from families and patients” through the more personal lens of a social worker than her physician’s perspective initially offered. But she, too, worked with families struggling to understand what was happening to their loved ones. “These were heartbreaking stories. I wished I could have intervened from the beginning” to help them better understand and care for their family member, she says.

Now, she and Manteau-Rao are trying to do exactly that with Neurocern’s technology, which generates personalized regimens for caretakers and relatives to follow. She declined to disclose annual revenue figures as the company pursues investors and strategic partnerships, but says it is on the path to growth, noting its participation in a healthcare incubator, its widely reviewed research, a seven-person advisory board on hand and plans for new hires in the works.

How it Helps

Dementia directly impacts women in a few ways, Rao says. First, “women are more likely to get dementia, and to live longer with it and have worse outcomes,” she says. Women over the age of 65 are more likely to suffer from dementia than breast cancer, she adds. But also, “women are more likely to be caretakers,” whether as hospital workers and physicians’ assistants or as the wives and daughters of sufferers who take on caregiver roles.

Moreover, women have specific needs when it comes to dementia care. For example, research has shown that women in particular struggle with the transition to a person in need of care, having long played the role of nurturer within their families. Many grapple mightily with feeling like a burden to their adult children. LGBT female patients, meanwhile, often bump up against assumptions made by professional caretakers about their backgrounds, relationships and needs, which can discourage them from pursuing care altogether.

As such, one-size-fits-all options for caring for dementia patients can leave women, in particular, behind. To combat that, Neurocern’ software uses a detailed client survey to develop a highly specific care regimen for patients and caretakers to utilize. “In our products, we take a very person-centered approach,” Rao says.

Beyond her role at Neurocern, Rao also works to encourage women to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields. She took part in WiSTEM, an accelerator for women STEM business owners hosted by entrepreneurial co-working and learning center 1871, then paid that focused assistance forward. She has spoken at events like the Fear Paradox Summit and a National Association of Women Business Owners meeting promoting entrepreneurship for young women, and sits on the boards of organizations like Women in Bio.

Rao says that supporting women in the medical field is crucial to fostering innovation, because “being an entrepreneur and a female physician, it’s a unique perspective.”

Why it Matters

Women professionals are vital to public health, Rao says, citing a study showing the high quality of care women physicians provide. That study, led by researchers at Harvard University and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, examined more than 1.5 million hospital Medicare patients aged 65 years or older who were seen between 2011 and 2014. The team found that patients treated by women were less likely to die after being admitted, and less likely to be readmitted once discharged.

And Rao says it’s important for women to start companies in this space. Their insights contribute to the whole medical industry, breathing new life into research behind persistent problems. Advancements accelerate where there is diversity of thought, and that’s why, she says, “it’s important to foster that entrepreneurial spirit in women across the country.”