To Uganda and back: Kimberly Kenne on researching pelvic floor disorders across the globe and close to home

Nearly 8,000 miles away, Kimberly Kenne feels just as at home in Uganda as she does in her home in Iowa City. As a pelvic floor disorders (PFD) researcher, Kenne, MD, MCR, relishes a chance to improve a woman’s quality of life.

Kimberly Kenne, MD, MCR

“The thing that motivates me the most is when my patients are able to do things that they haven’t done for quite a while because of their symptoms,” Kenne says.

It can feel embarrassing to talk about the common issues of pelvic floor disorders (PFD): Lack of control over urination, prolapse of the pelvic organs, or lack of control over bowel movements. And Kenne knows that. A urogynecologist at UI Health Care, Kenne wants patients to feel comfortable seeking care for PFD.

“Many individuals are not forthcoming with their doctors that they are having issues. Women with PFD should know this is extraordinarily common,” Kenne says. “And there are options for treatment if you just reach out.”

Through ongoing research, Kenne hopes to bring what helps her patients in the U.S. to parts of Africa.

Investigation to intervention

A pelvic medicine fellowship in Ethiopia sparked a passion for global health within Kenne. Now, her research project in Uganda aims to investigate the prevalence of and risk factors for PFDs in the country’s female population.

Kenne says the rates of the disorders in some African countries are quite high.

“When we look at low and middle-income countries, women there tend to have higher parity, or the number of pregnancies carried to viability, and often these women do very strenuous physical activity on a day-to-day basis both of which are risk factors for PFD.” Kenne says. “Because pelvic floor disorders aren’t necessarily life-threatening, they’re often ignored in this population similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S.”

Recently, Kenne lead a ground-breaking Iowa-based study that found—out of 25,000 women studied—a third of the women had some type of PFD and many of them were not seeking treatment.

“I want women to know that they shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed and that there are providers, particularly here within UI Health Care, who have really dedicated their careers to taking care of these problems,” Kenne says.

She hopes success with normalizing the discussion of PFD within Iowa and the U.S. can be carried over to her work internationally, saying it’s important to transition from simply investigating the disease in Uganda to providing intervention with therapies that treat PFD.

“Our team encourages women to feel empowered to decide which treatments are right for them based on how much they are bothered by their symptoms,” she says. “But the first step is knowing what’s available.”

Staying grounded

Kenne strongly believes in patient-driven care.

“I always look to meet patients where they’re at. I identify what they want to gain from treatment and what’s important in their life while making sure that I don’t project what I think is important,” Kenne says. “Because it’s really about what I can offer them.”

Working abroad and focusing on global health gives her more than a sense of personal accomplishment. It also gives Kenne a sense of balance.

“Working in Africa has helped me learn to prioritize what is and isn’t important in my life,” Kenne says. “I think looking outside of my little corner of the world keeps me grounded.”