NHS officials have been criticised for letting sales people have access to new mothers just hours after they have given birth.
Some parents are approached by promotion company workers while they are still on postnatal wards, a GP has warned.
Glasgow-based GP Dr Margaret McCartney questioned whether it was “desirable” for representatives from promotions company Bounty to be allowed on wards.
In an editorial, published on bmj.com, Dr McCartney writes that Bounty profits by selling parents’ details to other companies. But she said the hours after birth are “hardly an optimal time” to obtain consent for giving out data.
Parenting charity NCT said it was angry about the way some NHS organisations let Bounty access new mothers.
“Within hours of giving birth, they are being asked questions - their name and address, details of life insurance - and they give them in good faith, thinking they’re speaking to a hospital person,” said charity chief executive Belinda Phipps.
“In fact it’s a commercial person. The NHS is condoning a sales team collecting data from mothers in order to sell their name on to commercial interests.”
When parents fill out their contact details, the form states that: “by providing your email address and/or telephone number you agree to be contacted by these channels as well as post.” But Ms Phipps said that many parents have told her that they did not understand what they were signing up to.
Dr McCartney said commercial advertisers are also getting access to new parents through “baby bags”, which contain sample products as well as a dozen flyers, which are given out by Bounty.
She writes that some 2.6 million Bounty bags are given to new mothers and fathers every year. Some are distributed through Bounty representatives on wards and other are handed out by NHS workers.
The packs have an “air of officialdom” because they also contain application forms for child benefit, she said.
The article states that HM Revenue and Customs pays £90,000 a year to Bounty to distribute the forms - even though they are available online.
“So families supply their details, which can be sold on by a commercial company, which in turn is paid by the government to supply freely available child benefit claim forms,” writes Dr McCartney.
A spokesman for Bounty told the BMJ: “Over a decade ago Bounty offered to conduct a small scale pilot which satisfied HMRC that Bounty could distribute child benefit forms directly and quickly into the hands of parents as soon as they need them.”
He added that a poll of 4,000 parents earlier this year found that 90% said they were “satisfied” with the packs.
A HMRC spokesman added: “We are committed to keeping our costs as low as possible. Bounty distributed 82% of all child benefit claim forms in 2012, averaging around 10p for each claim. If HMRC posted the forms individually the cost would rise to 33p for each claim making this option much cheaper and more direct than the alternative.”
In her article, Dr McCartney says that the NHS, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and government have “embedded commercial advertising into routine contact with pregnant women during antenatal and postnatal care”.
She raises concerns that pregnant women are handed out a free booklet called Emma’s Diary from their GPs, which has got an RCGP stamp of approval, which contains 25 pages of medical information and 119 pages of advertising.
The RCGP told the BMJ that: “all content is quality assured by our RCGP editorial board who do a sterling job in ensuring that it is updated to reflect any changes to medical working practices, latest research findings [and] government guidelines.”
Dr McCartney also questioned a marketing sales pitch from a publishing company, purporting to be selling “advertorial” for RCOG’s magazine Baby and You.
Mark Green, managing director of crib company Bednest, told the BMJ that a sales person tried to sell him advertising space for a “guaranteed minimum” audience of 500,000 mothers and parents through “their obstetrician/midwife … the most trusted and influential person throughout this entire time.”
An RCOG spokeswoman told the BMJ that the college is investigating, adding: “If such practice is happening, it is unacceptable and the RCOG in no way approves.” She said the magazine has “strict policies on its advertising and sponsorship and does not seek advertorials for any of its publications.”
Dr McCartney concludes: “Is it right that the NHS imply its approval for the thousands of products being promoted at parents? Do we really want parents placed under advertising pressure and for NHS doctors, radiographers, and midwives to be the conduit? Some conflicts of interest in medicine are hard to avoid. Others are not. These should be easy.”