Inhospitable Hospitals

Hey, don’t bankrupt my parents!

You know the country is totally fucked up if people are stealing milk powder from supermarkets.

Milk powder companies spend millions courting hospitals and incentivizing them to plug their brands. They do this by cash donations and all forms of sponsorships ranging from financing hospitals’ dinner-and-dance parties to underwriting their shuttle bus services.

It seems like a win-win situation for both the companies and the hospitals. But consumers suffer because prices shoot up. These marketing costs rose 42.4% between 2010 and 2014, an increase which has been passed on to consumers.

Yes, milk powder gets stolen from supermarkets.

And desperate mothers go all the way to Malaysia to buy them.

Unlike the safety concerns which drive mainland Chinese south to Hong Kong in search of milk powder – an unquenchable demand which led to the territory imposing a two-can limit on visitors – Singaporeans travel north to find respite from the escalating costs at home.

Even for a country known for its high cost of living, the rate of increase in the price of milk powder has been eye popping. The average price of a tin has shot up 120% in the past decade, making it among the most expensive in the world, outstripping even Hong Kong.

A 900g tin of Similac Stage 1 milk powder costs about HK$298/- (S$53/-) in Hong Kong, but will set parents back about HK$330/- in Singapore, that’s 60 Singapore dollars! Another report revealed that in Johor Baru, a 1.8kg tin of Similac Stage 4 formula sells only for RM100/-; about S$32/- or 40% cheaper.

Hospitals sleeping with suppliers is nothing new. Drug companies do it all the time too. Even companies manufacturing replacement body parts reward hospitals and surgeons for using their products. For example, if a surgeon uses knee implants from certain manufacturers, he gets incentivized. Some are even given expensive free trips to exotic destinations each time a certain brand of implants is used.

The word “incentivize” is a corporate-jargon non-word meaning “motivate,” and was coined in 1968 by public relations and marketing practitioners, the spin doctors, who deny it of course. Some ten years later, it was shortened to the equally annoying verb “incent.” Unfortunately, both are recognized by both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary. While “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” let’s call a spade a spade. “Incentivization” is a form of bribery, make no bones about it. (No pun intended.)

When the medical profession makes compromises, and loses its moral compass and hence its objectivity, patients suffer in the long run, in more ways than one. Colluding with companies with deep pockets divert patients to treatment that may not be the best or the most affordable option for them. Ditto formula milk powder.

Worse, some claims touted by milk powder companies are fraudulent and border ambiguously on the extravagant, if not misleading. A case in point is the “Gain IQ” tag used for a popular brand of milk powder. The selling point translates into “intestinal quality” if you look closely at the label. Parents hoping to raise geniuses will be drawn to that brand.

Hospitals should be brand agnostic.

However, one cannot expect the medical profession to regulate itself; a well-informed and educated public and detailed inquiries such as the recent one conducted by the Competition Commission of Singapore on the murky dealings between milk powder companies and hospitals would help towards the emergence of an enlightened and discerning nation of consumers.

The relevant watchdogs should also be more vigilant in their roles and take preventive measures to ensure that the gullible and less knowledgeable do not fall victim to over-hyped claims.

Milk powder is milk powder. In my time, we grew up on sweetened condensed milk, probably considered extremely unhealthy in this day and age; but we all survived. Not only that, some of us even became doctors.

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