How to Successfully Serve Incontinence Patients

Sponsored by TENA Incontinence Management by SCA

Incontinence is a widespread problem in the United States, but despite its size, most patients are still very secretive about their condition, which makes it difficult for providers to help treat.

More than 13 million Americans are affected by incontinence, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Most, if not all, suffer from embarrassment over their condition. Despite the large incidence of incontinence, the condition carries a stigma and embarrassment that makes it hard for providers to help those patients.

Because incontinence is such a personal health issue that many patients are embarrassed about, it can be hard to develop any kind of relationship with patients at all. That’s frustrating, because fostering dialog can help determine which incontinence products are right for patients.

Incontinence patients are even reluctant to share information with their physicians. This leaves most patients self-treating their condition without any help from any kind of healthcare professionals at all. Instead, they go from store to store trying one product after another in a trial-and-error approach that can create more frustration as opposed to delivering a solution.

Successfully providing incontinence products means that the provider must find a way to get the patient to open up. There are multiple ways in which a provider can help start patient dialog on such a private issue. Here are some strategies for getting started:

Provide privacy. In order to get incontinence patients to come into your business and openly answer questions about their condition so that you can help them, you must create a comfortable, private space that provides a venue for such a discussion to take place.

“The first thing you need to do is have a private area — not just a consulting room like you do for a prescription pharmacy,” says Chuck Blackburn, co-owner and chairman of the board of directors of BLACKBURN’S, an HME provider that has been in operation for 72 years, and is one of the largest independent providers in western Pennsylvania. “You have to have a completely enclosed, private area that also has a toilet and washbasin. We found this especially true if you are helping ostomy patients, obviously.”

That room and those facilities will help patients clearly demonstrate the problems they are having so that the provider can help them chose the right solution.

Have the right staff on the job. You must dedicate mature, well-trained, professional staff members to the task of working with incontinence patients. “It’s very difficult to share all this private information with a recently graduated high school student,” Blackburn says. “The person has to have some kind of training in the normal urinary track and bowel function, and what an abnormal one is.”

In terms of specific training, start by looking at what your state HME association, pharmaceutical society or other trade associations might have to offer in the way of seminars addressing incontinence. Or you could have a registered nurse come in and site down with the staff to review basic concepts and treatment steps for incontinence. Dedicating knowledgeable staff to the task might also give the patient treatment ideas to discuss with his or her physician.

Recognize that you might be dealing with a proxy. When a client comes into your store seeking incontinence solutions, there is a good possibility that person might not be the patient. You could be dealing with a spouse, relative or close friend who is acting as a go-between on the patient’s behalf. This can be frustrating because this intermediary is not going to be able to answer the same questions that a patient can, since they aren’t going to have anywhere near the familiarity as the patient will, since it is his or her condition.

Ask some questions to help you identify if a person is an intermediary, and if so, encourage them to bring the patient in for a private consultation. Describe the efforts you go to in order to ensure confidentiality and privacy, and how a private and open dialog will help you provide the best possible solution for the patient.

Forge referral relationships. If you can create strong relationships with physicians that treat incontinence patients, you might be able to create a direct path between the patient and your HME business, helping eliminate the isolation a patient might feel and the self-treatment they might engage in. Moreover, physicians might be grateful to have someone knowledgeable to help incontinence patients open up.

“It becomes a collaboration between what the physician can do from a medical and pharmacological point of view, and what the provider can do from a physical device point of view,” he says. “A lot of physicians are not always up on the latest products being offered.”

Know the products. The key is to know the options and how they relate to the patient’s condition. “You have to develop a recognizable expertise in the knowledge of products and basic knowledge of the physiology, and be able to relate this to the patient, so that you can say, ‘This product is going to work,’” Blackburn says.

Points to take away:

  • Incontinence patients are difficult to help because they can feel embarrassed or stigmatized by their condition. This prevents the useful dialog the provider needs to provide a good solution.
  • A way to foster that dialog is to provide a consultation environment that is truly private and confidential so that patients can open up.
  • Make sure the staff helping incontinence patients are mature, professional and educated on the condition and the product solutions.
  • Forge strong relationships with physicians so that they know you are able to provide the confidentiality and solutions their patients need.

Learn More

Incontinence patients need support, and that means information, resources and the ability to share experiences and information. There are various web sites that let them do just that by providing references on incontinence and solutions, as well as online forums. Here are a few:

World Federation of Incontinent Patients

The National Association For Continence

The Incontinence Support Center


This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of HME Business.

HME Business Podcast