Oncology’s Balance: Tech & Touch

Interview Elena Barbieri, oncologist at the Policlinico di Modena

New technologies will open up unforeseeable opportunities, but we must never lose sight of the human factor.” Elena Barbieri, an oncologist at the Policlinico di Modena, has focused her work on prevention and proximity with patients, making it her strong point ever since she embraced the medical profession. For Dr. Barbieri, being present as a physician at every stage of the disease, discussing and sharing treatment pathways with all professionals involved, and relying on technological innovation, create the winning synergy in the fight against breast cancer.

What inspired you to become an oncologist, and how did you shape your work around the patient’s treatment, in the context of the continuum of care?

The inspiration to become an oncologist came during high school. I was particularly interested in biology and I wanted to learn more about cancer, about these “cells gone wild,” to understand why they became different at some point and caused such a serious disease. As I grew up, I realized that in addition to having an interest in biology, I was also strongly interested in being close to people at a very difficult time in their lives. I wanted to be able to provide support to patients and also to their families throughout the treatment period. I think I was also motivated by my family history, as I lost my beloved paternal grandmother to biliary tract cancer when I was 12 years old, and at that moment I thought: “when I grow up, I can do something to support those in my situation”.

In my everyday professional activities, I strive to ensure I provide the best care to the people who rely on me, but I also try to be as present as possible at every stage of the disease, implementing that concept of professional and emotional closeness I mentioned earlier.


With so many players involved – doctors and providers – how do you ensure consistent and coordinated care for patients?

Multidisciplinarity, or as I prefer to call it, interdisciplinarity, is very important in this context: it requires sharing the care pathway with all professionals involved, each having their own expertise and complementing each other . Maintaining a dialogue between professionals and providers, sharing IT tools and using a common language without losing sight of the Patient or of their family, who are always the focus of our work, are essential elements.


Have there been any recent innovations, perhaps developed by healthcare companies, that you have noticed as particularly effective in improving cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Absolutely. Genetic testing and genomic testing have fundamentally changed oncology. For instance, we no longer speak of “breast or lung cancer”, but rather of “breast and lung cancers”, as each disease has different characteristics. Thanks to innovation, we are increasingly able to distinguish and characterize different diseases, and to identify new therapeutic targets for which to build new effective drugs. Based on the diseases’ different biological characteristics, we can now personalize the treatment pathway, by providing the most effective drug to the patient at that precise moment in their journey. Until a decade ago, this was all science fiction.


With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning in oncology, how do you think such innovations will change the future of medicine? Are there other developments you find exciting, that you view as promising in the field?

I am confident that there will be further advancements in the diagnostic field as well, and that new technologies will lead us to scenarios that are unpredictable to date, but we must never lose sight of the human factor. I also believe very much in the importance of prevention and lifestyles. A suitable lifestyle lowers the risk of oncological disease, among other things. In addition, prevention, in the sense of an early diagnosis, is essential to intervene and treat the disease early to prevent its development. In this field, we also owe a lot to the discovery of hereditary and transmissible genetic factors which increase the risk of oncological disease. Being aware of these factors allows one to make decisions and choices about one’s own health and life.

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