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Research leads to practical support for young people with continence problems

Carol Joinson incontinence app TRACK

10 December 2019

Bladder and bowel problems are very common and can be affected by psychological issues and stressful life events in a child’s life. There is also strong evidence that bladder and bowel problems affect the mental health of children, young people and their parents.

Dr Carol Joinson is a developmental psychologist in the Bristol Medical School who has conducted research examining how psychological factors are involved in the development of continence problems, and how they in turn affect a child’s mental health.

Thanks to Elizabeth Blackwell Institute's support for health-related translational projects, Carol used Wellcome Trust TRACK funding to take her concept through to a prototype app. A subsequent MRC Confidence In Concept grant, also through Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, provided an initial evaluation of the app’s usability, acceptability and potential effectiveness.

During 2014-17 Carol led a major research project funded by the Medical Research Council, to examine the risk factors and outcomes associated with continence problems in children and young people. The project used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), but also generated new in-depth qualitative data describing the experiences of young people with continence problems.

Urinary incontinence and urgency problems in adolescence often continue into adulthood and have profound effects on social functioning, educational attainment, and mental health as well as national productivity and NHS spending. Bladder problems, for example, place a significant economic burden on the NHS.

The majority of urinary incontinence problems in young people are functional and highly treatable, but effective treatment requires good adherence and continued support from clinicians. First line treatment for urinary incontinence involves adhering to a regular schedule of toileting and drinking. It can be difficult for young people to stick to treatment, and failure means rising costs to the NHS for incontinence pads, medication, and secondary referrals.

A major finding from this research was that many young people with continence problems do not feel adequately supported by current services and would really like to see improvements in the care they receive.

The research findings prompted Carol to consider a smartphone app to help young people stick to their treatment. With the help of the University’s RED Research Development, Policy Bristol and Knowledge Exchange team, she started looking for relevant translational funding to enable the development of tangible support that her research had demonstrated was needed.  

The result was URApp, designed as a cost-effective, self-management solution for accessible, personalised and effective behaviour change support, including for young people who may not have accessed treatment. The team plan to release URApp to paediatric continence clinics as an adjunct to current treatment.

The MRC project and its reports also showed that many young people with continence problems are not receiving adequate support in secondary schools to allow them to manage their continence problems effectively.  Dealing with continence problems at school is difficult, but lack of support and understanding from staff has an adverse effect on young people’s wellbeing and attainment.

School governing bodies have a statutory duty under the Children and Families Act 2014 to ensure schools make arrangements to support pupils with medical conditions. The MRC project findings, key policy implications and recommendations for schools were captured in a Policy Briefing that highlighted to policymakers, including the Department for Education that specific guidance needed to be added to their statutory guidance on ‘Supporting Pupils with Medical Conditions at School’.

With support from the University’s RED team, Carol secured further translational funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) to collaborate with ERIC, The Children’s Bowel and Bladder Charity, with young people themselves and secondary school staff: together they produced and promoted information resources for secondary schools. This included a film to teach secondary school staff about the unique needs of young people with continence problems and provide guidance on how to offer support. 

Carol said: "RED's support included help and guidance at the application stages, ongoing support during the projects and help with translating the key findings to allow stakeholders to make use of the research. I would encourage other researchers who are carrying out translational research to work with the RED team to develop their ideas.”

Reflecting on her translational projects with Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, Carol said:

"Through conducting research funded by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute I gained valuable new skills and knowledge in user-led design, app design and application of behaviour change techniques to interventions. We also established new collaborations, allowing me to continue working closely with ERIC, further strengthening the collaborative relationship I have with this charity."

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