Atefeh Riazi's mission: Spreading healthcare tech around the world

The CIO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Atefeh Riazi has a passion for spreading the benefits of healthcare technology around the world, with a focus on those from the global South. Through her non-profit CIOs Without Borders, she is inviting CIOs of other healthcare organizations to join in her mission.

Ms. Riazi has served as the senior vice president and CIO at the New York City-based cancer center since 2020, prior to which she served as the United Nation's chief information technology officer.

Her passion for international tech sustainability and responsibility was ignited in 2008 while visiting Guiyu, China, a town largely believed to be the biggest site for electronic waste in the world. She and her colleagues were inspired to take action after watching men, women (some even pregnant) and children climb through the waste, dismantling the old tech from the West with their hands, exposing them to dangerous levels of mercury.

She started a taskforce that campaigned for a policy that reduces e-waste and pressured tech companies to stop using mercury and other hazardous compounds in their technology. While a lot has changed since then, she believes there is much yet to be done.

The taskforce Ms. Riazi created after her trip to China slowly morphed into CIOs Without Borders, the international nonprofit organization. It was formed to be a collaboration between various stakeholders in an attempt to fix some of the many problems caused by tech—or the lack of it—as well as build on its strengths.

"I don't think the tech sector on its own can fix these things. All governments, civil society, the private sector, and the technology community must come together and say, what do we do?"

She also highlights the social role of technology and how she thinks technologists should shift their thinking around the consequences of it. 

"The paradox of our industry is that we think tech is about servers, switches and networks; about hardware and software. But it's no longer about that. It's about the experience and impact of that on society, human life, and the environment. And if we begin to have that conversation, we will innovate differently."

One key project the organization is working on now relates to the global digital divide. The pandemic simultaneously highlighted the great potential of virtual, on-demand healthcare as well as the lack of access to the necessary tools to participate in online healthcare by many people. The organization is looking to provide healthcare services and tools to countries, where there are a very small number of physicians for 11 million people. It is also looking to send medical equipment to countries in the global South as well as provide them and their staff with expertise and support.

"We can build relationships with the South, with countries that are developing countries, and try to send equipment and expertise to their hospitals, and begin to equip them. But not only to send equipment, because that's just step one. It's about providing support, committing to provide support," she said. "Things that we're throwing away because they're three years old or five years old have great value in so many parts of the world."

Other projects from the nonprofit include an initiative on global cybersecurity and providing free IT support to those who cannot access it.

Beyond her role at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Ms. Riazi has now found the time to push for more membership and activity in the organization. The nonprofit is seeking more members and volunteers to help its mission.

"We are revamping the group, and we have a lot of work to do. I am reaching out to CIOs to say, come join us, be part of us, lead something that is important to you, and lead the change," she said.

To join the group, head to the website to donate, volunteer or sign up for updates. 

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