Study: Smartphone Apps Might Miss Melanomas

By Carrie Stevenson and Tim Betler

Smartphone applications that aim to analyze photographs of skin lesions for the likelihood of cancer gave results that were often inaccurate, according to the latest research from the University of Pittsburgh that was published today in JAMA Dermatology. Researchers say patients who rely on these apps and who receive inaccurate “benign” feedback for the image of a melanoma may put off doctor visits and potentially delay life-saving treatment.

“Smartphone apps are so popular now, and they’re used for absolutely everything. It’s great that they may encourage people to be more mindful about their health care and have more open discussions with their physicians, but it’s important that users don’t allow their ‘apps’ to take the place of real medical advice,” said lead researcher Laura Ferris, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Researchers tested four different applications available on the two most popular smartphone platforms. They uploaded images of 60 melanomas and 128 benign lesions that were photographed and biopsied ahead of time. Three of the four applications inaccurately characterized 30 percent or more melanomas as “unconcerning,” with the worst only being accurate 6.8 percent of the time. Those three tools were available for free or a very low cost – up to $5 for unlimited use – and gave users almost instant feedback about their image using various algorithms. The fourth app was the most accurate, correctly identifying melanomas 98 percent of the time. It sent user images to a board-certified dermatologist and returned the analysis within 24 hours, at a cost of $5 per use.

“The results show that we aren’t ready to take the dermatologist out of the picture,” said Dr. Ferris. “This is a good platform for consideration of store-and-forward teledermatology, where patients who don’t have easy access to a doctor might submit such images for analysis by a board-certified dermatologist. But especially with melanoma, where early detection and treatment is so critical, it’s important that patients use tools that gave reliable information. There really isn’t a substitute for seeing your doctor.”