Not all smartphone applications that assess melanoma risk are created equal. So say researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who tested four applications, commonly called apps, and found their performances to be highly variable. The researchers concluded that these apps, which are not subject to regulatory oversight, have the potential to delay the diagnosis of melanoma and harm users.
A paper describing the research was published earlier this month at Online First by JAMA Dermatology.
“Only a physician and a biopsy can diagnose skin cancer,” says Michael Sabel, M.D., an associate professor of surgery at the U-M who specializes in melanoma. He was the lead physician involved in developing UMSkinCheck, a free smartphone app that was not among those studied by the Pittsburgh researchers.
Dr. Sabel talked with mCancer Partner about the Pittsburgh study, and what makes UMSkinCheck different from apps that claim the ability to diagnose skin cancer.
mCancer Partner: What can you tell us about this study?
Dr. Sabel: The researchers used 188 images of skin lesions to test four apps that were developed to identify melanoma. At least 30% of the time, three of the four apps failed to identify melanomas. These three apps used automated algorithms, or step-by-step sets of instructions, to analyze images. The app with the highest level of accuracy – 98% – didn’t actually identify melanomas – it sent the images to board-certified dermatologists who reviewed them and reported results for a fee.
mCancer Partner: What is your greatest concern about apps like the ones described by the researchers?
Dr. Sabel: Lesions don’t always look like the ones in textbooks, so it worries me that people who download and use these “diagnostic” apps might ignore a melanoma or other skin cancer because their app gave them bad information. Regular skin checks can help people discover melanoma in its earliest, most treatable stages, so a false sense of security based on errors made by these “diagnostic” apps could actually harm the patient.
mCancer Partner: How is UMSkinCheck different from these other apps?
Dr. Sabel: The U-M app doesn’t claim to diagnose skin cancers. Instead, it is a tool that helps patients by walking them through a good self-exam, sending reminders when it’s time to re-check lesions or moles, and creating a photo record to share with a physician. Its patient education includes a risk calculator from the National Cancer Institute. Hopefully the app can help people make skin checks a routine part of their lives. That’s our goal.
For questions about skin cancer, contact the U-M Cancer AnswerLine™, 800-865-1125.