WASHINGTON -- It's a growing side effect of modern medicine: A test for one condition turns up something completely unrelated. It might be a real danger, or an anxiety-provoking false alarm.
Doctors dub this the dreaded "incidentaloma" -- so-called incidental findings that tell people more than they bargained for, things they might not need or want to know.
A presidential advisory council said Thursday it's time to be more up front about that risk with patients before their next X-ray or gene test turns up a disturbing surprise.
"Incidental findings can be life-saving, but they also can lead to uncertainty and distress," cautioned Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
It's an issue that "will likely touch all of us who seek medical care, participate in research, or send a cheek swab to a company for a peek at our own genetic makeup," she said.
It might seem obvious that if your family doctor orders X-rays for a broken rib that also spot signs of cancer, you'll be told, but Thursday's report notes that not every medical condition that can be found should be -- and there's conflicting advice about how to disclose and manage incidental findings.
Consider: Ten percent of brain scans spot something unrelated that might require more testing, said bioethics panel member Dr. Stephen Hauser, neurology chairman at the University of California, San Francisco.
Anywhere from 30 percent to 43 percent of abdominal CT scans turn up incidental findings, according to studies cited by the commission. In fact, the bioethics report said that, at trauma centers, these high-powered scans that aim to find subtle injuries instead are more likely to make an incidental finding.
Also, say a doctor maps your child's genes to help diagnose some puzzling muscle symptoms -- but also discovers genes that might trigger breast cancer after she's grown. That incidental finding has implications for other relatives, too.
Sometimes, surprise findings can be lifesaving, for example in the case of an athlete whose brain is scanned after a concussion and radiologists spot a tumor, Hauser said.
Other times, nothing can be done. That same brain scan might show early signs of an incurable condition, Hauser said, and "this young person now needs to live with the knowledge that she may someday develop this neurologic disease."