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CIOs join forces to battle cancer

Stephanie Overby | May 30, 2014
Join forces with a seeming archrival to develop a data-sharing platform? Jay Ferro ... Ferro is the CIO of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

What CIO would divulge the intimate details of his mobile technology or cloud strategy with a major competitor? Exchange governance tips with her counterpart at a rival firm? Join forces with a seeming archrival to develop a data-sharing platform?

Jay Ferro would. So would Jeff Como. Robert Machen, too. And they do. Ferro is the CIO of the American Cancer Society (ACS). Como leads the technology organization for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Machen is CIO at ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Their nonprofit organizations compete for funding, for research attention, for hearts and minds. But the three CIOs have forged an informal alliance to share IT best practices, technology tips, and personal support.

"Sure, we're in competition for the same donor dollars. And maybe it sounds like archrivals Pepsi and Coke getting together and saying, 'Hey, let's just split the market,'" says Ferro, who says the three met at a conference for CIOs at nonprofits after he joined ACS two years ago. "But we're in it for a higher calling."

A similar coalition of like-minded CIOs has emerged among the IT leaders who support the work of the National Cancer Institute's clinical and research centers throughout the country. Once fierce competitors for major grant dollars and scientific discovery, their organizations now increasingly collaborate as they seek the next breakthroughs in treating a disease affecting one in three women and one in two men. And leading this confederacy of clinics are their CIOs, an increasingly close-knit band of professionals, many of whom have dual backgrounds in research science and IT.

"The enemy with this cancer is so awful that it's bigger than any one of us," says Patricia Skarulis, vice president and CIO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the nation's oldest and largest private cancer center. "People have committed their lives to conquering it. But it requires a lot of collaboration because the enemy is such a powerful one."

It also demands a lot of technology, whether it's next-generation DNA sequencing for the personalized cancer treatments of the future, or the latest in mobile, social media, cloud computing and analytics to increase the efficiency and efficacy of the country's leading cancer nonprofits.

The cancer-fighting CIO is a unique breed--fiercely committed to his or her work, yet open-hearted with comrades in the battle against the disease. And while each IT leader was drawn to the role for a different reason, they're all coming together to solve the technology problems that will enable the next innovative treatment, support service or research breakthrough.

A Higher Calling
Jay Ferro's wife Priscilla was diagnosed with cervical cancer in May 2005. She fought the advanced disease, which had not been diagnosed at her annual physicals, with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. After a six-month remission, Priscilla's cancer returned. She died in January 2007, leaving Ferro and his three sons to wonder what might have happened had the disease been detected sooner.


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