Skin Scan, a consumer dermatology app, allows patients to take a picture of a mole and uses a mathematical algorithm to judge the potential danger of the mole. While consumer healthcare apps are designed to make patients more aware of health concerns and get them more involved in their own healthcare, the apps can also cause problems for patients who do not use them correctly or rely too heavily on advice generated from the app, dermatologists warn.
There are numerous health and diagnostic apps available to consumers, including ones that allow patients to monitor sleep patterns, track diabetes management, evaluate blood pressure and more. The number of consumer dermatology apps is increasing; iSunBurn, which provides the UV index based on the user’s location, and AcneApp and Acne Pwner, apps that purported to treat acne that were recently cited by the Federal Trade Commission, are just a few of the apps that are currently available.
The Skin Scan app, described on the iTunes website as a “skin cancer prevention tool,” uses a mathematical algorithm to calculate the fractal dimensions of a mole and the surrounding skin; this algorithm is used to build a structural map that reveals the growth patterns of the involved tissues.
However, as the number of apps increase, so do concerns about reliability, accuracy and impact. While the apps are not designed to replace the opinions and recommendations of physicians, and all the apps come with disclaimers, some dermatologists are concerned that the apps may be doing more harm than good.
“These [apps] are very rudimentary,” says Darrell S. Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Medical School. “You have to answer questions and you have to have professional knowledge to answer them. These should not be relied on.”
Gary Goldenberg, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and pathology and medical director of the faculty dermatology practice at Mount Sinai Medical Center, concurs.
“I have recommended only one app to my patients — iSunBurn,” Dr. Goldenberg says. “I have not recommended Skin Scan and, in fact, would caution patients against using it — it may give a false sense of security or false alarm.”
The Skin Scan app provides instructions for taking a picture of the suspicious mole or skin mark; the app then provides a risk assessment that includes instructing users to seek a healthcare professional’s opinion. The description of the app on the iTunes website calls Skin Scan “a medical application created to easily scan and monitor your moles over time in order to prevent skin cancer.”
While consumer healthcare apps are designed to make patients more aware of health concerns and get them more involved in their own healthcare, the apps can also cause problems for patients who do not use them correctly or rely too heavily on advice generated from the app, dermatologists warn.
“You want to be involved in your own medical care, but the risk of making a mistake is great,” Dr. Rigel says. “If [the app] tells you that too many things are wrong and biopsies all show that they’re not cancerous, people may stop listening to it. It may increase the public’s awareness, but it may delay diagnosis.”
“If the device tells people who have skin cancer that there’s nothing to worry about, that could be a problem,” explains Steve Feldman, MD, PhD, of the Center for Dermatology Research and the Departments of Dermatology, Pathology and Public Health Sciences, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC. “If the device encourages people to see their doctor for a definitive answer, it could be a positive development.”
Based on the description of the Skin Scan app on the iTunes website, that is what the tool is designed to do.
“[Skin Scan] is able to see if the mole has an abnormal development and to alert the user of a medical visit is required,” the description says. “It is a skin cancer prevention tool that provides a risk assessment on the spot.”
Regardless of the indications of the app, dermatologists encourage consumers to consult a healthcare professional directly for all skin concerns.
“The best thing to do is see your local dermatologist for a skin check if you are worried about something and to use sun protective measures,” Dr. Goldenberg says.