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Skin Cancer Detection Apps Prove Unreliable

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(Photo Credit: KDKA)

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

(Source: KDKA-TV) Dr. Maria Simbra
Dr. Maria Simbra is an Emmy award-winning medical journalist, who...
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CBS Pittsburgh (con't)

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Can skin cancer be diagnosed over the phone?

A study at the University of Pittsburgh says be wary.

“We do know that more and more people are using apps for health care related purposes,” UPMC dermatologist and study author Dr. Laura Ferris said. “Really surprising that these things could be out there in the market and available to people to use without any input from a physician.”

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Dermatology at Pitt tested four purposely unidentified smartphone applications.

These apps use digital images and classify skin lesions as “malignant,” or “not concerning.”

In the study, pictures of188 lesions, which subsequently tested to be cancer or not, were uploaded and run through the apps.

Two of the apps were free, one was $5 to download and another was $5 per picture.

“Three of these applications were automated, so you put in an image, it ran some fancy computer graphics, and they used an algorithm that they didn’t really discuss, tell us if it had been tested or validated in any way,” Dr. Ferris said.

After about a minute, the automated programs give a result, but 30 percent of the time they incorrectly said you’re okay, when actually the image is indeed cancerous.

“People may be vulnerable to hearing what they want to hear, which is, that thing that has been growing on your skin, it’s okay, it’s not anything bad, and think okay good, I can skip my doctors visit this time,” Dr. Ferris said. “If you catch [melanoma] early, you can be cured. If you let it grow, it gets deeper, it gets worse, and then it will spread throughout the body, and then it’s a deadly disease.”

The fourth app takes a day to give you a result, and is more sensitive. An anonymous, board-certified dermatologist reviews each photo. Only one of 53 melanomas was read as “benign.”

“This has implications for the future where a non-expert, or even the patient, will be able to take a picture of their lesion, and then send it to a dermatologist,” she said.

If you search in general for melanoma apps, some appear to come from a university microbiology student to a nondescript British company to the Discovery Channel. Who and how many people use these apps isn’t known. There is no regulatory oversight.

Without standards and accountability built in, if you’re relying on these apps for a diagnosis without involving a doctor, you’re taking your chances.

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