Novartis puts AI on the job to help reps say the right things to the right doctors

SAN FRANCISCO—Artificial intelligence is a big buzzword in R&D right now, but at Novartis, it's hard at work in the sales department, too.

Amid far more meetings with digital companies at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference this year, Novartis’ pharma CEO Paul Hudson said he expects 2019 to be the “beginning of the tech disruption” for pharma, in everything from marketing to supply chain.

In past years at JPM, Hudson mainly checked out early-stage biotech companies for potential partnerships, he told FiercePharma. This year? It’s about half health-tech companies, he said.

Obviously, Novartis is jumping right in, as part of CEO Vas Narasimhan's push to transform the entire company using digital tech. In the field, the drugmaker has equipped salespeople with an AI service that suggests doctors to visit and subjects to talk up during their meetings.

The program's “virtual assistant” helps salespeople “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,” Hudson said.

“When you turn up at the right time with the right things to say, they’re more interested and put more value in it, and our people like the fact that AI is running in the background helping them plan their day," he added.

In the long run, the program will help the company become more efficient, Hudson said, also citing telemedicine and improved distribution systems as potential digital shakeups heading for the pharma industry.

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Under Narasimhan, Novartis has placed a big emphasis on digital. The company in 2017 appointed Bertrand Bodson as its first chief digital officer. In March, the drugmaker teamed with Pear Therapeutics to create software applications to treat patients with schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. The partners just launched an opioid addiction app this week.

Of course, Novartis isn’t alone in its digital quest. Pfizer, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline also appointed their first chief digital officers over the past couple years, signaling how the trend is taking hold at top drug companies.

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Merck appointed former Nike executive Jim Scholefield as its digital lead, while GSK tapped former Walmart executive Karenann Terrell as its chief digital and technology officer. For GSK’s consumer unit, the company picked up former Google and L’Oreal executive Marc Speichert. Pfizer, for its part, named former Quest Diagnostics executive Lidia Fonseca to serve as chief digital officer under new CEO Albert Bourla.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify details of the AI service.