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Topic Focus: Incidental Findings and the Need to Track Them

It’s fortunate when an imaging scan picks up an adverse condition that was not on the radar of any health care professional. And once discovered, it’s obviously important to follow through on that so-called “incidental finding.”

Incidental findings, notes a media article on that topic, “are abnormalities discovered unintentionally and not related to the medical condition that prompted the test.”

In other words, you have an MRI following a sports-related head hit indicating, perhaps, a concussion, with the imaging test revealing a brain tumor. Or perhaps a pre-op scan focused on lung health finds a clogged artery.

The central point to be noted upon such a discovery, states the above-cited article on incidental findings, is the importance of any key ancillary finding to be timely and purposefully followed through upon.

Such is not always the case, especially in fast-paced emergency environments. One recent study noted that only about half of all emergency department radiology reports scrutinized in one analysis that discussed an incidental finding and a follow-up recommendation concerning it were subsequently discussed with patients.

That is flatly ominous, given the clear implications for any serious illness or disease that is left untreated.

Some hospitals are getting proactive in their efforts to ensure that, once noted, significant incidental findings stay in focus and are acted upon. One facility stresses interpersonal communication between scanned patients and radiologists, where those parties together examine and discuss images, as well as next steps that might be necessary. Another hospital has instituted a system whereby doctors are electronically reminded to follow through with patients on incidental findings.

The need to do so is great. Reportedly, such findings are seen in as many as 30 percent or more of all imaging tests.