Smartphone applications unreliable in skin cancer detection

Smartphone applications purporting to diagnose skin cancer often return incorrect results and prevent timely detection of the illness, new research shows.

Researchers testing four of the numerous downloadable applications for smartphones which claim to differentiate between benign and cancerous skin lesions have found that in one third of cases, three of the applications wrongly diagnosed cancerous moles as benign.

The three applications to return a high-level of incorrect results are showed an image of a mole and return a diagnosis using an automated algorithm. Meanwhile, the fourth application – which misdiagnosed only one of 53 lesions shown to it – has all pictures reviewed by a qualified skin specialist.

As such, researchers have warned against reliance on applications for the examination of worrisome skin lesions.

“It is important that users don’t allow their apps to take the place of medical advice and physician diagnosis,” advises Professor Laura Ferris, the researcher leading the study at the University of Pittsburgh.

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

The fourth application – and the only one to return reasonably consistent results – is the only paying app, with a cost of US$5 to download.

The researchers have also highlighted the lack of regulations pertaining to apps which offer medical advice, noting the opportunity for completely unsubstantiated claims to be circulated and passed off as proper medical advice.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration is working on the possibility of regulation for health-related smartphone apps, two individuals having been fined last year in connection with their app, which claimed to treat acne without any evidence or research supporting the claim.

Similarly, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is examining options for regulation, with the BBC reporting them as saying: “The regulation of software such as these health applications is complex and needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Work is progressing at the European level to produce the appropriate guidance to most effectively regulate this rapidly growing area.”

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