Something I learned over all my years in pharmaceutical marketing is that the worn-out adage “never say never” can’t be underestimated. Sounds like commonplace – you read it, you agree, and you ignore. It is one of those things that you got to live through and later see that what everyone said would never happen just happened. 

I can think of some cases. Upon the launch of the generic medicines policy in Brazil back in 1999, everyone said – what else? – “That will never work. Doctors will never allow their power to prescribe what’s best for their patients to be trampled over.” Well, generics transformed the whole pharmaceutical industry. Marketing strategists didn’t realize there was a more powerful actor than doctors, namely, a Minister of Health with high political ambitions and the budget to convince the population.

Another: gynecologists would never allow women to be vaccinated during pregnancy; doctors would never embrace remote promotion. About this last one: I still believe nothing can replace a rep interacting with the healthcare professional in real life (but, hey, I may be wrong).

Still another one: medical consultations would never, ever happen remotely. This type of consultation applies to phone, video or any other communication shape or form. Doctors had to see, touch, measure the temperature, feel the pulse, capture the disposition of the patient.

Then came WhatsApp. A doctor friend of mine gets pictures sent by patients while at restaurants. Sometimes of hemorrhoids, something that doesn’t bother a physician’s appetite, but grosses out dinner companions (note to readers: my friend never disclosed the identity of the patient). But this was informal stuff, and no medical association ever said this form of doctor-patient interaction acceptable.

And now this “will-never-happen” just happened. I am living in the US, and my health plan is UnitedHealthcare. A few days ago, I got an e-mail from them launching the “Virtual Visit” program, along with digital and analog advertising campaigns. 

It works like this: you get online, talk to a doctor and, if the complaint is simple, you will get medical recommendations that may include a prescription. Everyone expects that the initiative will be a huge success, after all it is a win-win. Patients save time and money and hours or days of suffering. The health plan saves money. Pediatricians can sleep while their on-line night-shift colleague evaluate the appearance of a newborn’s poop (this is an actual TV commercial).

Is this an advance? Is this good or bad for healthcare? Is this a fad? Is the same thing going to happen in Brazil? Or in our culture, the personal doctor-patient bound is much stronger? I leave the answer to you.

Just please, do not say“it will never happen.”

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