Dr. Meredith Niess saw her patient was scared. He'd come to the Veterans Affairs clinic in Denver with a painful hernia near his stomach. Niess, a primary care resident, knew he needed surgery right away. But another doctor had already ordered a chest X-ray instead.
The test results revealed a mass in the man's lung.
"This guy is sweating in his seat, [and] he's not thinking about his hernia," Niess said. "He's thinking he's got cancer."
It was 2012, and Niess was upset. Though ordering a chest X-ray in a case like this was considered routine medical practice, Niess understood something her patient didn't. Decades of evidence showed the chest X-ray was unnecessary and the "mass" was probably a shadow or a cluster of blood vessels. These non-finding findings are so common that doctors have dubbed them "incidentalomas."