Booby Traps Series: Were you sold out for a sandwich? Formula company gifts and incentive programs in hospitals

This is the 36th post in a series on Booby Traps, made possible by the generous support of Motherlove Herbal Company.

When I started began my first job working in a hospital, my IBCLC mentor explained what happened at the holidays on the maternity unit.  The formula company salesman, she said, would arrive with a gigantic box of Godiva chocolates for the childbirth unit staff.  Wanting to be generous at the holidays, too, my mentor brought in her own gift – a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies – and set it down beside the chocolates.

That image – Godiva chocolates vs. oatmeal raisin cookies – has lived on in my mind as a David vs. Goliath representation of what we, as breastfeeding moms and supporters, are up against.

And unfortunately it lives on in the form of other gifts and incentive programs designed by formula companies to promote their brands, and formula feeding, among hospital staff.  A lactation consultant friend who works in a California hospital told me that her stomach sinks every time she hears a nurse call down the hall, “The formula company guy brought frapuccinos again!”  My award for most egregious example?  An  incentive program which a doctor actually had the poor sense to explain to a mom this way: “If I tell you that ‘Lipil is the best’, then we get free catered lunches from Panera!”

I do have hope that this will change, as companies and hospitals come under more pressure to stop gifts from pharmaceutical representatives (from the same parent companies that produce formula).  There are signs that someday the oatmeal raisin cookie will prevail over the Godiva chocolates.

For an explanation of all this, we asked Marsha Walker, executive director of the National Alliance of Breastfeeding Advocacy and author of Still Selling out Mothers and Babies, to explain how formula company gifts to your hospital providers might influence the kind of breastfeeding care you get.

Are you getting the best lactation care and services in the hospital after you have a baby? Or have the nurses and physicians fallen under the spell of food, gifts, and hype from the formula company salespeople that haunt the hallways of most maternity units in the U.S.?

Formula manufacturers know that most people understand when they are the target of advertising, being easily able to recognize an ad when they see or hear one. So to create a more effective sales force for pitching formula, they enlist the help of trusted nurses and physicians, as most patients trust that advice from their health care providers is given with the patient’s best interest in mind. Nurses and physicians are routinely wined and dined with expensive dinners, lunches brought onto the maternity unit, distribution of gifts to staff, and all sorts of other gimmicks to convince the staff that formula is as good as breastmilk, and that brand X is better than any of the others. This paves the way for the easier flow of formula when breastfeeding problems arise or when patients ask which is the best formula to use. That question is not necessarily answered with scientific evidence but all too often with the name of the brand whose salesperson just provided food or gifts for the staff.

Creating a benevolent image of a formula company and assuring brand loyalty to a specific brand of formula is accomplished is some eye-opening ways. One clever formula salesperson conducted a bottle cap contest for the nurses, offering a gift certificate to a fancy store to the nurse who collected the most formula bottle caps. A nurse would walk into a mother’s room with a formula bottle, remove the cap, leave the bottle with the mother (whether it was needed or not, whether the mother was breastfeeding or not), put the nurse’s name on the cap, and place it a bag that was later collected by the formula salesperson who then counted the caps and awarded the prize. Another salesperson offered prizes to hospital maternity units who gathered the most nurses to listen to an audio presentation on using formula. Hospital staff are routine regaled with piles of glossy reprints and handouts extolling the benefits of their formula and urging health care providers to recommend it to new mothers. Food, flattery, and friendship are offered to staff for the purpose of developing loyalty to a product in order to circumvent evidence-based practice.

It is really time to stop this kind of approach to peddling pricey formula to new mothers. Who wants health care delivered to them from a commercial perspective? Families deserve better than this. Mothers who deliver their babies at a hospital with the Baby Friendly designation are assured that corporate loyalty does not supersede evidence-based health care. All staff at a Baby Friendly hospital have been trained in proper breastfeeding support and do not act as marketing reps for a particular brand of infant formula. If your hospital is not Baby Friendly, ask why. Baby Friendly hospitals have the best interest of all their infants in mind, not just the breastfed ones. Isn’t this what all families are entitled to?

Do you know if your providers accept gifts from formula companies?  Do you think it can influence the kind of care you get?

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7 Comments | Last revised on 03/28/2012

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