To get their brands being offered as the default formula milk in maternity rooms for a longer period, manufacturers have been paying for hospitals’ dinner-and-dance functions, or sponsoring the running of their shuttle buses.
Some go further, giving hospitals outright monetary contributions in periodic lump sums.
This first-mover advantage is key, given that many parents do not switch brands after their babies have got used to them.
An inquiry report by the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) released yesterday said such deals have been on the rise, possibly reflecting hospitals’ increasing needs and the importance of the hospital channel to the manufacturers as a form of marketing and brand outreach.
The formula milk manufacturers also sponsor activities at public hospitals, but this does not influence their milk rotation schedule, said the CCS.
According to the hospitals it contacted, such payments and “in kind” monetary sponsorships by manufacturers help reduce the cost of running such activities, and defray the cost of nursing education and training.
Manufacturers sponsor a range of activities targeted at parents and parents-to-be, as well as hospital staff. They also underwrite hospital activities such as the printing of maternity brochures, as well as corporate dinner-and-dance events.
Some manufacturers also give sums of money, computed by how long they want their brands to be on rotation. If they give, for instance, twice as much as the standard fee, their brands can be on rotation for twice as long.
There are seven private hospitals in Singapore offering maternity services. Two responded to queries last night.
A Thomson Medical spokesman said brands are rotated on a monthly basis, and all suppliers contribute the same sum to be included in the rotation. He added: “We work with each milk company to a different extent, depending on how they can contribute towards our objectives of education and preparing parents for parenthood.”
The companies do not sponsor the supply of baby milk formula to the hospital.
Thomson Medical is actively moving towards Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative certification, he said, with a 96 per cent breastfeeding rate at the time of discharge. For those who cannot breastfeed, they have access to all major brands of milk. Only when mothers do not have a preference are they given the default formula.
Mount Alvernia Hospital also said it does not accept milk powder sponsorship from manufacturers, and that it accepts sponsorship from formula milk manufacturers only if they are related to expanding patients’ knowledge in baby care and nutrition. It did not say whether it receives rotation fees.
Public hospitals that offer maternity services – KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), National University Hospital and Singapore General Hospital – are prohibited from entering into such arrangements.
They have a rotation system that ensures an equal duration for different manufacturers.
Singapore Management University associate professor of marketing Hannah Chang said this strategy would get brands known to parents.
“Rather than err on the side of caution, consumers go for well-known brands they are familiar with.
“Hospitals are perceived as trusted experts in the domain, hence mothers tend to stick to the brands that hospitals use,” she said.
The CCS recommended a review on the sponsorships and payments that formula milk manufacturers provide, and their impact on the milk rotation programmes in the hospitals.
The Ministry of Health said in a media release that it accepted the recommendation and will work with industry players to make available more affordable infant formula brands for use in hospitals.
Dr Chua Mei Chien, KKH’s head and senior consultant of the department of neonatology, said: “We welcome the latest announcement from the Ministry of Health about making available more affordable infant formula milk in the ready-to-feed form suitable for use in the hospital, as it will encourage more infant formula companies to participate in our hospital’s milk rotation programme.”
(Photo: The Straits Times)