Basel, Switzerland — Novartis Chief Medical Officer Vas Narasimhan is on the cutting edge of healthcare, equipping many arms of the brand with novel digital tech, but the Swiss pharmaceutical giant’s use of artificial intelligence (A.I.) is particularly striking. Rather than being confined to research and development, where A.I. is a known buzzword, it’s now being used far outside the lab: by the company’s field force. Novartis’ sales reps travel with a “virtual assistant,” empowering them with the most relevant data and conversation topics for individual providers. 

According to Novartis C.E.O. Paul Hudson, the company’s virtual assistant enables sales reps to “plan better, move better and make sure when they show up to see a healthcare professional, they are talking about the things that the healthcare professional is absolutely interested in.” This is the kind of digital disruption, Hudson believes, that will eventually come to characterize the entire industry. 

Reps report satisfaction with their secret weapon. “Our people like the fact that AI is running in the background helping them plan their day,” Hudson says. “When you turn up at the right time with the right things to say, they’re more interested and they put more value in it.” 

Other technological developments at Novartis include, through a partnership with Pear Therapeutics, software applications that can help treat schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, alongside an app, reSET-O, that combats opioid addiction. 

Why This Matters

Pharma is catching up to retail companies through digital enhancements that revolutionize marketing, operations, and even therapies themselves. In just the past two years, Novartis, Pfizer, GSK, and Merck appointed chief digital officers for the first time, each one plucked from the world of retail. A Novartis executive explained that this move “is not just about digital helping the business.” The aim, rather, is to have tech fundamentally “transform our business model.” 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.