COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation

Digital capabilities are proving their worth in the face of the sudden upheavals driven by the pandemic and ongoing investment will pay dividends, says Bertrand Bodson, Novartis CDO


No one in pharma needs to be told that COVID-19 is upending business as we know it. But in the face of this unprecedented change there is a great opportunity to adapt, improve and profit from new ways of working.


And digital capabilities are the key to realising them, says Bertrand Bodson, Chief Digital Officer and Member of the Executive Board of Novartis in his keynote speech opening the eyeforpharma Virtual, a digital version of the Barcelona event, and available to delegates who can sign up for free at


Novartis is demonstrating how pharma can achieve rapid transformation and increase customer engagement from disruption thanks to the extensive digital investments it has made across the business in the last two and a half years. 


Remote capabilities

This investment has primed it to be able to react rapidly and flexibly in the last few weeks. “These are extraordinary times, extraordinary circumstances in which we have been tested in so many ways. We are seeing fundamental change happening at record time and digital has been at the centre of this,” says Bodson.


At Novartis, clinical trials teams are able to work remotely and virtually, via its Sense insight centre and its Nerve Live platform, giving them the capability to continue working and the clarity to understand the progress of trials in real time. 


“We are very fortunate that we made massive investments over the past couple of years in the underlying platform that allows 4000 people running those trials with predictive capabilities. We can see trials including eight predictive modules to help us understand: are we curating fast enough, do we have gaps, and where do we need to do resource allocations?”


Novartis has also been able to ramp up its remote capabilities to support healthcare providers in getting care to patients remotely via telemedicine, he adds. “We have seen our teams stepping up, making the best of telemedicine, making the best of home nursing when patients are not able to reach the doctors or the hospitals any more.”


Operationally digital has been able to help ensure Novartis rises to unprecedented logistical challenges all over the world, he says. “There have been heroic moves by our teams to use all the data we have to ensure we dispatch the right drugs at the right time despite borders being closed and despite a very dynamic situation.”


Its 30,000 sales reps, meanwhile, are working from home but, thanks to its ACTayla sales platform, they are able to pivot to new ways of working. Their digital capabilities enable them to gather relevant insights and to be more responsive to a ‘pull’ of demand from HCPs and patients, rather than a sales ‘push’. 


“Our world has been turned upside down but we have equipped them to work differently to help patients and doctors, to think about the next best action at the right time with the right content. The ability to read those signs has fundamentally increased and new models are being developed faster than ever.”


Data capabilities are also helping Novartis join with others in the fight to understand the pandemic better, to develop treatments and to work towards a vaccine, Bodson adds. “What I find most exciting about the research side is how many coalitions are coming together, how much data we are putting together into open platforms so we can contribute to this together in the hunt for solutions.”


Digital transformation

It is not just the investments in new digital platforms that are proving their worth in this changed world. Novartis has also driven deeper change thanks to its emphasis on training and on engaging all of its people in the digital transformation process, he says. 


One measure of this success has been the large-scale take up of training courses on digital marketing and also data science, amounting to 30,000 volunteers for one Coursera module on the latter topic. 


Hand in hand with digital training has been an effort to drive deep cultural change that has emphasised agile and also less hierarchical ways of working. Its ‘Unboss’ movement was designed to empower teams, to encourage agile ‘two-pizza’, Amazon-style teams, to foster curiosity and a sense of belief in their ability to drive innovation. “We are really starting to see that pay off,” says Bodson. “It’s something I feel really passionate about. I’m amazed by how many of our people have stepped up.”


Other important components of its digital investment drive have been its large scale investments in AI and data science, along with a “massive” recruitment drive attracting talent from the likes of Google, Amazon and IBM too. Just as important have been investments in master data management, and data cleanup “lots of things that don’t sound sexy but without which none of this would happen”, he adds.


The transformation is far from over and the current crisis will drive yet more rapid change, throwing out new opportunities and driving the need for yet more investment. Pharma has a great opportunity right now to build on enduring investments in innovation like these, he says. 


“I couldn’t think of a better time. We have all been forced to go virtual in record time and many have been surprised with how well it has worked. There is plenty of opportunity to change the way we interact with patients and doctors, how we win hearts and minds and make this stick over the long term.”


Even faster drug development timelines, more patient focused sales efforts, new operational efficiencies, new partnerships and better patient adherence are all prizes to chase.


Destination China

New business models are emerging and Novartis is keen to be an early adopter. China is an especially vibrant place to look for innovation when it comes to new ways of working in healthcare. “There is no better place if you want to look at the future of healthcare than to look at what is happening in China.” 


Tencent is a good example of a player that is using software and population level data to create new possibilities, says Bodson. “The way they are using those platforms has been breathtaking and the way they are thinking about their content and building experiences is unique. We want to tap into that.”


To this end it has partnered with Tencent on the ‘AI Nurse’ initiative, helping automate the post-discharge care of heart failure patients “at massive scale” using simple questions and follow-up approaches between the patients and their HCPs, so they can be brought back into the healthcare system more efficiently. “We intend to make a massive dent in chronic health on that front,” says Bodson


No pharma business should waste the opportunity to embed new ways of working in the current crisis so that they remain in place long after the pandemic has passed, he adds. Pharma should  take the opportunity to double down in its digital investments, says Bodson. 


“We will need even more of that now. This is going to be a turning point for all of us to convince our teams, management our boards, that is this is the point where you want to be equipped with these platforms.”


There is also an opportunity to use current events as an accelerant at an industry level and across the healthcare ecosystem to drive innovation and improvements together, he adds. “There is a coalition of the willing to explore how to get together as an industry to reshape some of the business models. It is in our hands. This is the moment to make this happen.”