We Need to Talk About Catheters

It's exciting but it's early days - not all research works (otherwise we wouldn't need to do research!) but the only way we can make progress is by investing in things we believe can make a difference to people's lives.

Ugh, I know. Catheters. Definitely something we'd rather not think about. It's certainly not the most glamorous area of medicine, you'll never catch a rock star performing at a benefit concert called Catheter Aid. But thousands upon thousands of people around the world use one. For some it's short term - for example while undergoing surgery. For others it becomes part of their daily lives.

It's smelly, it's messy and infection is common. Across the country 90,000 people suffering from long-term illness have to put up with the additional pain and indignity of constant infections from their catheter.

Here's the thing, though - the catheter has been around for a very long time - they even found one in the ruins of Pompeii and the device we use today was essentially developed in the 1930s. Over the last 80 years or so the materials we use to make them have improved a lot but the basic design remains the same: a tube is inserted, usually into the urethra, to drain the bladder into a bag.

So recently, when a leading researcher called for greater investment into research in the area, I was so glad that somebody has finally put their head above the parapet to speak out about the situation.

Until three years ago I'd never given the idea a second thought. Although I conquered breast cancer 19 years ago I was lucky enough never to have needed one during my treatment. But then Professor Roger Feneley approached my charity, Walk the Walk to ask for funding into catheter research.

A quick chat with him and my eyes were opened. Professor Feneley, who is an emeritus consultant urologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, was working on an improved design which tackled all the basic flaws in catheter design - of which there are many. The idea included a valve which would allow the bladder to fill, then be fully emptied either on a timer or by the patient, using a magnetic controller.

It is that natural filling and emptying process, he explained, which helps keep the bladder clear of infection and makes it function more like a healthy bladder.

But, amazingly, very few people in the medical sector are interested in helping. "To be frank, there's no money in it," he told me. There seemed to be a complacency - or even a vested interest - keeping the same old model going. According to Professor Feneley over 110million get sold a year worldwide. So there is little incentive to change.

Walk the Walk is a grant-giving charity - the money we raise from our MoonWalks in London, Edinburgh and all over the world is then passed on to other charities where it is most needed. Yes, it was slightly outside our main focus of breast cancer, but we have a history of getting behind causes which could make a real difference - like the Breast Cancer tissue bank which provides good quality tissue to researchers. Or our research involving medical detection dogs which could lead to a change in the way we diagnose cancer.

And to us, this was such an important part of medicine we felt compelled to help.

After years of hard work and many bureaucratic hold-ups, Roger Feneley is now starting a trial of a new design with one volunteer patient. Here's hoping that this is the first step towards improving the lot of patients everywhere.

It's exciting but it's early days - not all research works (otherwise we wouldn't need to do research!) but the only way we can make progress is by investing in things we believe can make a difference to people's lives.

In the meantime our population is ageing - more and more people will need catheters in future. So we need to keep talking about them. We need to ask our doctors, the medical supplies industry and our politicians why the design is so outdated and what can be done to improve the situation. We need to champion this unglamorous topic until a real change is made, providing relief for many thousands of people in the UK and beyond.

Now that really would be something.