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The mass digitization driven by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed healthcare and artificial intelligence forever, according to the leaders of Salesforce and Novartis. Bret Taylor, president and COO at Salesforce, and Vas Narasimhan, CEO at Novartis, spoke with Alyson Shontel, editor-in-chief at Business Insider, during a session, “The future of health and the interaction of technology.” John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, and Paddy Cosgrove, co-founder at Web Summit and Collision, opened the three-day all-virtual conference on Tuesday.

Shontel asked the two leaders what the last year has been like for them personally and professionally.

Taylor said he experienced telemedicine for the first time during the pandemic and he’s not going back to traditional office visits.

“I’m optimistic and eager to dive into the new normal,” he said.

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Narasimham said the shift to telemedicine has been good for patients and doctors, but some healthcare providers are worried about underdiagnosis of cancer and other illnesses.

“We need to get the right balance between telemed and in-person,” he said.

Telemedicine is obviously here to stay in some form, and there are three other pandemic practices that also will endure, according to the two leaders.

Planning to return to work

Taylor said Salesforce employees want a flexible work schedule at this point, including the option to work in the office.

“Early on, few people felt safe in-person but now 72% of employees are ready to have a desk again and get back with their colleagues,” he said.

He said employee surveys show that people want to be in the office a few days a week and that Generation Z employees are twice as likely to want to work in-person than older workers.

Salesforce is reopening the tower office in San Francisco soon and taking a worker’s vaccine status into consideration as part of a “nuanced” reopening plan, Taylor said.

Narasimhan said Novartis is also thinking about having three to four days in the office for employees.

“My travel schedule will look very different, and the big question is traveling to conferences,” he said.

Some leaders in healthcare are worried about the underdiagnosis of chronic conditions such as heart disease as well as cancer, he added.

The new role of tech post-pandemic

Novartis is conducting two research projects to develop treatments for COVID, and Narasimhan said the company also wants to develop drugs that might work for a wide range of illnesses.

“The hardest thing is that you don’t know what pathogen is going to emerge, so we’re thinking about a pan-coronavirus drug or a pan-antiviral that could be applied across a wide range of viruses,” he said.

Taylor said he thinks companies see technology differently after living through the pandemic.

“I think it’s becoming less about technology as a project that you deploy and it’s done, but more about technology as a platform that you set up to be more resilient,” he said.

He thinks tech leaders now have a much longer term view of their platforms and are thinking about how technology can help them respond more effectively to future crises.

Mass digitization increases the power of AI

Shontel asked the two executives about how they see artificial intelligence influencing healthcare.

Narasimhan said he thinks the industry is past the hype and now is doing the work of digital transformation. One significant shift is how the industry runs clinical trials, which is part of the process of drug research.

“This requires tens of thousands of monitoring visits which are usually done in person,” he said. “Now we do this remotely and that’s going to live beyond the pandemic as well.”

Taylor said Salesforce did not expect to be supporting contact tracing and vaccine distribution but that the company has helped to deliver 30 million shots via the Vaccine Cloud service.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for software companies to help providers be more effective and use technology to connect patients to payers and providers,” he said.

Narasimhan said Novartis is using AI to predict where the pandemic is heading.

“We use AI to predict which country to move our clinical trials to,” he said.

AI will help hospitals and pharma companies optimize operational data from manufacturing to patient flow, Narasimhan said.

He said drug companies are starting to see progress on their top priority for AI: identifying new medicines.

Taylor said the pandemic created an explosion in the application of AI.

“Now that every interaction in our customer database has gone digital, you can create more personalized experiences faster and easier,” he said.