Incidental Findings and Low-Value Care

A whopping 15% to 30% of diagnostic imaging exams reveal at least one incidental finding. Each of those findings might seem like blessings to radiology outsiders, but a popular new AJR editorial argues that imaging incidentals are far more likely to drive low-value care.

Michigan Medicine’s Matthew Davenport, MD led-off his editorial by suggesting that early cancer detection “is not always an ideal outcome,” because most of those cancers won’t affect patient health, while incidental follow-ups always require resources and often negatively impact patients (physically, financially, and emotionally).

He identified numerous reasons for radiology’s incidental overdiagnosis challenges…

  • Screening low-risk patients inherently uncovers low-risk incidentals
  • There’s a lack of understanding of incidental risks (clinically and downstream)
  • Many early cancers don’t or shouldn’t require treatment
  • Radiologists face significant pressure to recommend follow-ups

Although many incidental findings significantly improve patient outcomes, and those positive examples have established incidentals as a “secondary benefit of imaging,” the editorial suggests that incidentals will have a negative overall impact on radiology’s value until current practices change. 

So, what should we do? Dr. Davenport encourages radiologists to…

  • Become more aware of the harms of incidental management
  • Advocate for guidelines that emphasize high-value care
  • Support research on incidental management practices
  • “Avoid being alarmist” about incidentals in radiology reporting
  • Adopt solutions to help rads assess incidental patients’ risk factors
  • Balance diagnostic sensitivity with minimizing follow-up risks 

The Takeaway

If you scroll through the Imaging Wire archives, you’ll find plenty of stories that depict incidentals as a net positive for patient care. In fact, most suggest that radiology’s research and business leaders are actively trying to find ways to detect more incidentals. However, efforts to better understand or to reduce incidentals’ negative impacts are far less common. 

That divide is pretty notable given how many radiologists agree with Dr. Davenport, and it suggests that the barriers to solving incidental findings’ value problems are quite high.

Radiology’s Smart New Deal

A new Journal of Digital Imaging editorial from UCLA radiology chair Dieter R. Enzmann, MD proposed a complete overhaul of how radiology reports are designed and distributed, in a way that should make sense to radiology outsiders but might make some folks within radiology uncomfortable.

Dr. Enzmann’s “Smart New Deal” proposes that radiology reports and reporting workflows should evolve to primarily support smartphone-based usage for both patients and physicians, ensuring that reports are:

  • Widely accessible 
  • Easily navigated and understood 
  • Built with empathy for current realities (info overload, time scarcity, mobility)
  • And widely utilized… because they are accessible, simple, and understandable

To achieve those goals, Dr. Enzmann proposes a “creative destruction” of our current reporting infrastructure, helped by ongoing improvements in foundational technologies (e.g. cloud, interoperability) and investments from radiology’s tech leaders (or from their future disruptors).

Despite Dr. Enzmann’s impressive credentials, the people of radiology might have a hard time coming to terms with this vision, given that:

  • Radiology reports are mainly intended for referring physicians, and referrers don’t seem to be demanding simplified phone-native reports (yet)
  • This is a big change given how reports are currently formatted and accessed
  • Patient-friendly features that require new labor often face resistance
  • It might make more sense for this smartphone-centric approach to cover patients’ entire healthcare journeys (not just radiology reports)

The Takeaway

It can be hard to envision a future when radiology reports are primarily built for smartphone consumption.

That said, few radiologists or rad vendors would argue against other data-based industries making sure their products (including their newsletters) are accessible, understandable, and actionable. Many might also recognize that some of the hottest imaging segments are already smartphone-native (e.g. AI care coordination solutions, PocketHealth’s imaging sharing, handheld POCUS), while some of the biggest trends in radiology focus on making reports easier for patients and referrers to consume.

Smartphone-first reporting might not be a sure thing, but the trends we’re seeing do suggest that efforts to achieve Dr. Enzmann’s core reporting goals will be rewarded no matter where technology takes us.

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