There are a number of apps in the App Store that are supposed to help you identify if that funny looking mole is cancer or just a mole. While this is great in theory, turns out in practice you could be doing yourself more harm than good. You could, in fact, be putting your health at risk. A dermatologist from the University of Pittsburg tested four apps and found they were wrong at least 30% of the time. That would be okay, scary but okay, if it was a false positive, but the apps were wrong saying that the cancer was normal when it wasn’t.
Dermatologist Dr Laura Ferris of the University of Pittsburg hadn’t really given much thought to skin cancer detecting apps on the iPhone—until one of her patients asked about it. So, she and her colleges decided to test the apps. They bought a few of the apps and uploaded 188 pictures of skin lesions (the CNET post doesn’t say if some or all were melanomas) into four different apps to see what they got back.
The results were pretty scary.
Over 30% of the time the app was wrong, wrong saying there was nothing to worry about. The apps used a variety of methods from algorithms to scanning and one that had the image reviewed (for $5 an image) by an anonymous dermatologist. It’s worth noting that the dermatologist reviewed images app—that got only one wrong. Having looked through a lot of microscopes in my time trying to figure out what a “something” is, that’s not bad.
Here’s the real danger. Skin cancer is especially deadly, but also especially treatable if caught early. If you think a mole is suspicious and an app tells you it’s okay, you might miss a chance to catch it early. And that could cost you.
Dr. Ferris didn’t rule out using your smartphone to help your dermatologist diagnose skin issues. In fact in the video below you can see she thinks it’s a good idea:
The difference is sending an image to your doctor with a question “what is this?”, you’re more likely to get “let’s take a look” than “The server says it’s okay”.
Health apps are very popular on the App Store. I have several for sleeping that are great. Health references, also good (The Merck Manual is a standard book for diagnosis and the Merck Home Health Guide is also a standard reference book) and can help you with first aid and other topics. Just when it comes to diagnosis, it’s best to let your doctor, not an app, have the last word.