The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

New Video Highlights the Need for a Plan When it Comes to Incidental Findings

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) has posted its latest video, in which Commission Members discuss their report Anticipate and Communicate: Ethical Management of Incidental and Secondary Findings in the Clinical, Research, and Direct-to-Consumer Contexts.

In the three minute piece, Members highlight the essential message of the report on the ethical management of incidental findings across contexts: the importance of practitioners—including clinicians, researchers, and direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies—having a plan to anticipate and manage incidental findings.

Bioethics Commission Member Stephen L. Hauser, M.D., explains that advances in technology have made the issue of incidental findings pressing: “Incidental findings have always been with us, but with modern diagnostic capabilities they are becoming far more important and far more frequent.”

Hauser explains that, in the clinical setting, doctors must deal not only with findings that they have sought out, but also, increasingly, with incidental findings. He points out that incidental findings can occur up to 40% of the time with abdominal scans, and up to 10% of the time with brain scans. Thus, he says doctors should anticipate the types of findings that might arise, and make a plan for their management.

Bioethics Commission Member Christine Grady, R.N., Ph.D, explains the unique role of researchers: “The goal of doing research is to answer questions, it’s not taking care of people in the same way that you might in a clinical setting. On the other hand – they are people,” and certain incidental findings with significance for people’s health might arise throughout the course of research. Grady explains researchers must develop a plan for what to do in such cases.

Similarly, the Bioethics Commission recommended that DTC providers develop a plan for managing incidental findings. Member Anita L. Allen, J.D., Ph.D., explains, “We want these companies to try to anticipate the kinds of questions and issues that relate directly to peoples’ health care that these findings might implicate.”

This cross-contextual review of the ethical management of incidental findings by the Bioethics Commission was one of the first of its kind. As Executive Director Lisa M. Lee, Ph.D., M.S., describes, “They really are the first body that has looked at the idea of incidental findings… regardless of what the context is.”  This video, along with several others, is now available on the Bioethics Commission’s YouTube channel, Bioethicsgov.

In addition, the Bioethics Commission has developed and is providing free pedagogical materials to supplement its reports, including Anticipate and Communicate. Please check out in the coming days for a new primer to help institutional review boards understand the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations regarding how to manage incidental and secondary findings ethically in the research setting.

Share this article

Leave a Reply

Read the comment policy before posting your comment.


This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.