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Scientists not app-y with novel cancer detecting skin care technologies

By Andrew MCDOUGALL , 21-Jan-2013
Last updated the 21-Jan-2013 at 17:29 GMT

Despite raising awareness and highlighting the need for proper skin care, researchers have issued a reminder that smartphone applications claiming to evaluate a user's photographs of skin lesions for the likelihood of cancer should not replace a proper consultation with a physician.

Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine published their findings in JAMA Dermatology stating that some skin care apps return highly variable and often inaccurate feedback.

As such, they suggest that relying on these "apps" instead of consulting with a physician may delay the diagnosis of melanoma and timely, life-saving treatment.

Increasing use

"Smartphone usage is rapidly increasing, and the applications available to consumers have moved beyond communication and entertainment to everything under the sun, including health care," said lead researcher Laura Ferris, PhD.

"These tools may help patients be more mindful about their health care and improve communication between themselves and their physicians, but it's important that users don't allow their 'apps' to take the place of medical advice and physician diagnosis."

Ferris’ study found that three out of the four smartphone applications tested incorrectly diagnosed 30 percent or more melanomas as "unconcerning" based on their evaluation of user images.

Not a replacement

The assistant professor says that the likelihood of relying on the application's evaluation is particularly concerning for the uninsured or economically disadvantaged, especially because a substantial number of melanomas are first detected by patients.

"If they see a concerning lesion but the smartphone app incorrectly judges it to be benign, they may not follow up with a physician," said Dr Ferris.

"Technologies that decrease the mortality rate by improving self- and early-detection of melanomas would be a welcome addition to dermatology. But we have to make sure patients aren't being harmed by tools that deliver inaccurate results."

Study

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and looked at applications available in the two most popular smartphone platforms

Researchers uploaded 188 images of skin lesions to each of the four applications, which then analyzed the images in different ways, including automated algorithms and images reviewed by an anonymous board-certified dermatologist. 

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