Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hospitals Providing Formula

There is an interesting piece in the New York Times about hospitals ending the practice of sending formula home with mothers who are breastfeeding or ending the practice of sending mothers at home with formula at all.  There are a number of interesting economic questions here.

First, what is the role of a sample of formula in determining infant feeding practices.  This is particularly relevant for mothers who have decided to breastfeed at first.  On the one hand, it makes access to formula easier.  Less time required to obtain the first amount of formula that a mother will use to feed a child.  A lower price (zero beyond the hospital costs) than if the sample was not provided.  So, there is an economic logic to the idea that this might change mothers' behavior with respect to how they choose to feed their children.  Perhaps for any mothers who were truly at the margin about their decision to breastfeed, their decision might change.  Or, at the very least, their decision to stop breastfeeding might change to an earlier time than they had otherwise planned if the cost of switching to formula feeding is made lower than it would have been otherwise.

Even if the mother continues to breastfeed, one question would be how to measure the value of having the option of formula feeding readily available.  At least some mothers may assign a value to this even if they never choose to formula feed.  

Second, there is the question about whether it is acceptable to send formula home with mothers who are already formula feeding.  This does not seem like a question of promoting behavior change in this case.  Instead, the issue here is what brand the mother will choose.  Does the mother perceive the type of formula offered as an endorsement from the hospital.  In this case, is the hospital playing a role in essentially marketing a specific type of formula to the mothers.  If they are, is this a reasonable role for the hospital to play?

The biggest question overall may be whether the hospital has a role to play in shaping mothers' behavior rather than letting the mother make a choice for herself with the information she has available.  The hospital arguably has a role in providing information and helping the mother understand tradeoffs that she might need to make but what there is beyond that is uncertain.   

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