In November 2017 IMPRESS officially supported the IMechE Incontinence: The Engineering Challenge conference. This conference is part of a series which has been running biennially since 1995 and attracts a broad audience of researchers from numerous disciplines, patients and industry representatives. Here Chris Chatterton, our IMPRESS patient ambassador, talks about his experience of the 2017 event.
When I attended the 2017 IMechE conference I knew what to expect having attending in both 2013 and 2015. In those previous years I’d been on the patient panel, where individuals with various continence difficulties were given the opportunity to tell their story in a presentation and question and answer session. The prospect of talking about intensely private and personal issues to a room full of strangers can be quite daunting but in reality I often find it easier to talk about my continence difficulties in this environment than I do with close friends and relatives. In previous years there had been separate male and female panels but in 2017 they decided to join the two together. I considered it a good decision because, although there are obvious differences between the lived experience of men and women with continence issues, there are also many shared problems. The experience of sitting on the patient panel has always been very rewarding for several reasons. The audience really understands the issues and I’ve always been impressed by the thoughtful questions I have been asked. I always come away feeling that those working in continence engineering and research really want to help and that this is more than just a day-job. Also, being able to chat to the other panelists is extremely helpful because then I realise I’m not alone and that we often all have to deal with common issues. We have all shared some great practical and emotional tips about dealing with what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming issue.
There were many new faces in the 2017 patient panel but I still came away feeling just as positive. We were a varied and interesting group of people who gave a wide-ranging and at times moving portrayal of the issues. The value to the audience of such a forum certainly comes across and that has encouraged me to remain actively involved in spite of those occasions when I am in the lunch queue and someone comes up and starts talking about something quite personal I said in the panel! I must qualify that by saying that everyone has always been faultlessly polite and I’ve never felt pressurised to respond if I’ve felt uncomfortable.
It was a big bonus for me that during the rest of the conference I could attend any of the talks. I found them wide-ranging and very engaging and I was particularly interested to hear updates from a couple of projects where I'd participated in the clinical trial. Due to my background in medical research and science I am quite comfortable and very used to attending such events and from previous years I know that most of the panelists have stayed on to hear about current research activities and potential developments because they are far removed from the passive patients of the past and have a deep interest in this highly personal topic that affects them so directly.
This year’s conference included a new activity, a workshop which explored continence research in more depth and looked at what key developments delegates felt were needed for the field to move forward. This session was ably led by Katherine Jeays-Ward (D4D) and Helen Meese (IMechE) and I was made to feel very welcome both as an academic and an individual with lived experience of the condition. I also have a professional academic interest in the issue of continence, from a sociological perspective, and particularly the role that stigma plays regarding certain medical conditions such as obesity, mental health, addiction, and of course incontinence, and I am grateful to the conference organisers for having given me the opportunity to present my own work at the 2015 conference and again in 2017. I have always found this IMechE conference series an inspirational model for helping to break down the stigma and taboo that still surrounds incontinence. It approaches the subject with sensitivity whilst also making sure that the taboo element doesn’t hamper in depth discussions towards finding new solutions for the condition.
I leave these conferences amazed by the broad and fascinating areas of research that are being explored in engineering for continence as well as the large spectrum of different professionals involved. The 2017 conference was no exception. I heard about research work exploring the problems of skin care, pad effectiveness, risk of infection, odour control, catheter developments, the different issues faced when dealing with urinary and bowel problems, new medical devices, novel approaches to management, use of emerging digital technologies, and the wider issue of dignity, to name but a few. This multitude of research activity was communicated to an equally wide-ranging array of professionals including research nurses, bioengineers, biomedical scientists, clinicians, computer scientists, microbiologists, materials scientists, biochemists, and many other disciplines.
Similarly I’m always impressed by the enthusiasm and dynamism of the field and the genuine passion that everyone working in the area has for trying to solve the many difficulties faced by people with continence issues. Historically there has been a woeful lack of funding for continence research and still, in many university departments, a seeming indifference to engage with this neglected and hugely under-estimated issue but in recent years I can see that useful and practical research is taking place. I believe this is largely down to the approach set by this conference series in always putting the patient centre stage and promoting the active involvement of individuals with continence problems from the start when developing new products or testing new management strategies.
This event and the previous conferences I attended were all very useful and inspiring. I would certainly be happy to participate in future and would encourage interested researchers, patients or service-users to become involved. It is just a shame that the conference is only held once every two years but, with the added support of new organisations and the continued guidance of its pioneer Professor Alan Cottenden and key champions such as Margaret Macaulay and Professor Mandy Fader, I hope that this initiative will go from strength to strength.