Reframing Research on Women’s Bladder Health

When thinking about common public health women’s issues, bladder health may not initially come to mind. However, Dr. Jeni Hebert-Beirne and the Prevention of Lower Urinary Symptoms in Women (PLUS) Consortium are working to reframe the current approach to addressing women’s bladder health and lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) with an exclusive focus on prevention.

LUTS includes accidentally leaking urine, needing to go often during the day and having a strong and sudden need to urinate. In the U.S. 20-40% of women young and middle-aged are affected by these symptoms. LUTS increases women’s risk for other health issues such as depression, obesity and diabetes. While an issue that affects women’s lives, many may not feel comfortable actually discussing their symptoms let along seeking care. When symptoms reach the threshold of care seeking many women are confronted with health care providers who are unskilled and untrained in addressing their symptoms. LUTS have a significant economic impact on the health care system and on families impacted.  Therefore, the PLUS Consortium was formed, through funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as a transdisplinary research initiative comprised of experts from various fields across the country conducting studies that will guide future prevention and program research for LUTS.

As a member of the PLUS Consortium, Dr. Hebert-Beirne is launching the research by conducting a focus group study with women and girls across the country to understand how they learn about issues with their bladders and who they talk to about bladder health. These focus groups will prioritize special populations of women including those who work in occupations where they have little control over their bladders (e.g. factory workers), women who speak a language other than English and teens. Building off of Dr. Hebert-Beirne’s extensive work on social determinants of health, this research aims to understand bladder health in the context of women’s lives and through the life course model. Dr. Hebert-Beirne, who previously conducted research on bladder health through the Women’s Health Foundation, is enthusiastic about this NIH initiative. “I am drawn to issues that are ignored and the degree to which they impact people’s lives. Women are suffering in silence. Surgeons have been treating LUTS over and over without much success and are finally realizing we should move upstream.”

To prepare for the upcoming focus groups, Dr. Hebert-Beirne and PLUS Consortium partners at Loyola are holding a training at UIC-SPH this month for group facilitators from all over the country. This training will ensure that facilitators are equipped with the skills necessary to lead and encourage discussions with women on topics that they may not be used to openly discussing.

Information learned from the national focus groups will guide next research steps that may explore women’s social networks and how these networks relate to bladder health. Dr. Hebert-Beirne hopes to also expand this research to look specifically at LBTQ women, a group often ignored in the field. For public health researchers and students interested in research similar to the PLUS Consortium initiative, Dr. Hebert-Beirne stressed the importance of getting involved in community engagement efforts. “The [Plus Consortium] is taking the need for research that is community engaged and informed seriously…Community engagement is important to build an infrastructure in communities.”

To learn more about the PLUS Consortium visit https://plusconsortium.umn.edu/.

Written by Danielle Noriega, MPH/MBA Candidate