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Are smartphones smart enough to detect skin cancer?

By The Health News Team | May 24, 2018
Are smartphones smart enough to detect skin cancer?

Technology has given rise to countless smartphone apps designed to help us better manage diverse aspects of our lives, including our health. With 9,500 Americans diagnosed with skin cancer each day, apps to detect the disease could help with early detection. But can a phone app really detect skin cancer?

According to Dr. Mona Mofid, a board-certified dermatologist with Sharp Community Medical Group, smartphone apps are no substitute for getting your skin checked by a health care provider.

“They are insufficient in detecting melanoma accurately, which could be a deadly oversight,” she says. “Having said that, apps can be a good resource, and as technology improves, there’s strong potential in the future.”

Every hour, one person in the U.S. dies of melanoma, and 93,000 new diagnoses are expected in 2018. Although melanoma is less prevalent than other types of skin cancer, it is the most deadly. The main causes are outdoor sun exposure and tanning beds.

A quick search through the App Store or Google Play reveals a range of skin cancer apps to track everything from moles and skin lesions to assessing risk factors and symptoms. Typically you’ll be asked to take a photo of the area of skin you’re concerned about. Based on the information you supply, the app assesses your risk.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology compared four different apps claiming to detect skin cancer. Three of them used an algorithm to assess 188 photos of skin lesions, and the fourth app sent the photos to a dermatologist to be examined.

The app using a dermatologist turned out to be the most accurate. The ones using an algorithm incorrectly categorized a large number of skin lesions. Even the most accurate app missed 30 percent of melanomas.

“The danger is that people may rely solely upon an app and delay getting checked because an app mistakenly indicates a mole or lesion is low risk,” says Dr. Mofid.

“Skin cancers caught early are almost always curable. That’s why it’s important to see your health care provider early if you suspect something,” she says.

Where Dr. Mofid says apps can be helpful is in patient education and keeping skin cancer in the conversation.

“Even if you don’t open the app, just downloading it and seeing it regularly on your phone will likely be an encouraging reminder to check and protect your skin,” she says. “It can also be helpful in assisting you to monitor your skin and to ask your health care provider about a new or changing spot.”

Dr. Mofid recommends having your provider check your skin at your annual exam and to do head-to-toe self-examinations monthly. Consistency is important to identify anything new or changing early.

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