Go big on data and digital
Harnessing the power of data science and digital technology is a core part of our ambition to reimagine medicine. We are using digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) to find new ways to treat disease and improve the experience of customers and patients.
The healthcare industry reached a digital inflection point in 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, disrupting healthcare systems and economies, it forced organizations to rely on digital technology in everything from conducting research and managing clinical trials to bringing treatments to patients.
Our progress in embedding data science and digital technology across our business helped us respond to this changing environment. We minimized disruptions by quickly scaling up digital initiatives in research, development and manufacturing. We accelerated our move to new ways of engaging with healthcare professionals and patients, including our first fully digital product launch. And we continued to pursue major projects to build large-scale digital solutions across every aspect of our business.
How we innovate
Novartis aspires to become an industry leader in applying AI and other technologies to the challenge of discovering new medicines. We aim to streamline the research and development (R&D) process and maximize the potential of a key resource – 2 million patient years of data from two decades of clinical trials – to find more treatments and get them to patients more quickly.
The Novartis AI Innovation Lab, launched in 2019 in collaboration with Microsoft, is making progress in bolstering AI capabilities across our organization. For example, more than 300 associates and scientists are using an AI solution to unearth insights from trial data to help streamline the early manufacturing of molecules in development.
Another example is data42, a big data platform through which Novartis scientists and researchers can leverage data from more than 3 000 clinical trials. Backed by robust privacy controls for patient data, it enables researchers to analyze millions of health records, genomic data, adverse events and other information to generate hypotheses and test them through statistical modeling. For example, researchers can evaluate the potential benefit of a known treatment for a new disease indication using historical data. Another potential benefit involves modeling placebo effects for new experimental treatments by analyzing data from previous studies, potentially reducing the number of patients who need to receive a placebo.
For more information on how we are using data and digital in R&D, please see the section “Deliver transformative innovation.”
How we operate
Our people quickly embraced digital ways of working as the COVID-19 pandemic began, with more than 100 000 associates worldwide using Microsoft Teams by the end of May. Our SENSE Insight Center, which monitors more than 500 clinical trials in over 70 countries in real time, enabled us to shift contingency plans as the pandemic evolved. We conducted more than 35 000 remote monitoring visits with patients enrolled in our studies, reducing their chance of exposure to COVID-19.
We are also using data science and digital technology to help increase efficiency in manufacturing and business services. As part of our partnership with Amazon, we launched a platform called SpotOn that uses AI to optimize our manufacturing and supply chain. For more information, please see the section “Embrace operational excellence.”
Our SENSE Insight Center, which monitors more than 500 clinical trials in over 70 countries in real time, enabled us to shift contingency plans as the pandemic evolved
As our transformation accelerates, we continued to hire data scientists and other technology professionals eager to use their expertise to help improve human health. Novartis research published in June showed that technology professionals increasingly see the healthcare industry as a top-rated career destination; 72% of respondents across five countries were more likely to consider working in healthcare compared with six months prior.
We are also strengthening training and governance on digital topics. In December, we launched a set of standards called the Digital Code to help practitioners innovate and scale digital programs. We continued to conduct mandatory cybersecurity training for all employees. And we established a new training and mentoring program for female associates interested in building foundational data science skills.
Engaging with customers
We have made significant investments in digital tools to transform the way we engage with healthcare professionals. As a result, we were able to move quickly to virtual engagement with doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the six months through August, medical representatives in our Pharmaceuticals business unit experienced a more than ten-fold increase in the number of virtual engagements with healthcare professionals across our top 11 markets compared with a year earlier. Another milestone was our first fully digital product launch following US approval of Tabrecta, which treats a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. For more information on the Tabrecta launch, see the section “Embrace operational excellence.”
We continued to invest in personalizing our engagement with healthcare professionals, including optimizing marketing activities and tools to help improve the customer experience. ACTalya, for instance, is an AI-powered digital assistant for field-based associates that provides insights into how to optimize the content, timing and method of communications with doctors based on their individual preferences. Launched in 2018, the technology has provided millions of recommendations to more than 5 500 Novartis Pharmaceuticals associates across our 11 largest markets.
Digital health solutions
We are focused on digital applications that provide additional value to patients and doctors. Take Enerzair Breezhaler, for example, a first-in-class inhaled asthma therapy that we launched in the EU and Japan in August. It includes an optional digital sensor, co-developed with Propeller Health, which provides inhalation confirmation, medication reminders, and access to objective data. Patients can share the data with their doctors to help make informed therapeutic decisions to keep their asthma under control.
In China, we are helping shape the digital health ecosystem through our partnership with Tencent. In April, we launched a disease management system called AI Nurse for patients with heart failure, one of the leading causes of death in China. Available through Tencent’s WeChat application, AI Nurse uses innovative technology, including an AI-enabled chatbot, to monitor health parameters and link patients to a healthcare professional who can determine if follow-up care is needed. By the end of 2020, approximately 400 hospitals and more than 20 000 patients were using AI Nurse. We plan to expand the partnership to other therapeutic areas.
We launched a disease management system called AI Nurse for patients with heart failure, one of the leading causes of death in China
We are also collaborating with Hemex Health, a startup that developed a portable and affordable diagnostic device for sickle cell disease. Using just a few drops of blood and giving a result within 10 minutes, the device has the potential to revolutionize screening and diagnosis of the disease in low- and middle-income countries. In 2020, Hemex Health rolled out the device in Ghana, where Novartis has a partnership with the government to find new ways to tackle sickle cell disease.
Hemex Health was one of the first companies to partner with the Novartis Biome, a global network of innovation hubs that works with external partners to scale digital solutions to support all aspects of our strategy. We launched new Novartis Biome hubs in India, the UK, Canada and China in 2020, bringing the total worldwide to six.