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The most important safety decision concerning MRIs was to change the name of the procedure. In the late 1970s, the procedure known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) became magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because of the negative connotations the word “nuclear” invited. The change was understandable since MRIs do not expose patients to dangerous radiation: “nuclear” was in the original name because basic research on the atomic nucleus led to the development of MRIs. The main cost of the name change was to obscure the important link between basic research and useful medical technologies.

In recent years, however, MRIs, a generally safe procedure, have been bothered by a new problem. MRIs, which are used in research as well as medical settings, often result in incidental findings of medical conditions that may be clinically significant. Automatic notification of subjects, however, is not always the sensible route, since incidental findings that turn out to be clinically irrelevant can lead not only to fear and anxiety but to needless and dangerous interventions.

Sound ethical policies on incidental findings need to be developed. It is ironic that this process will involve the weighing of patient fears that may not be shared by experts; the original name change was motivated by much the same situation.

Publication Citation

33 Am. J.L. & Med. 229 (2007)