Can Smartphone Applications Accurately Detect Melanoma?

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2011, file photo, a Blackberry employee holds a mobile phone of Blackberry in Berlin. Research In Moti
FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2011, file photo, a Blackberry employee holds a mobile phone of Blackberry in Berlin. Research In Motion (RIM) made another step towards the release of its new BlackBerry smartphones on Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, announcing that it plans to unveil the devices and its new operating system on Jan. 30. (AP Photo/dapd, Berthold Stadler)

Smartphone applications are used for everything these days, and for the most part they are helpful and help to simplify life. Whether is it to check the weather, to see if your plane is delayed or if you can get a seat at your favorite restaurant, apps, for the most part, give accurate information.

What if an app could give misleading health information or give you a false sense that a health issue is not to be worried about or, worse yet, delay a diagnosis of cancer?

There are now apps that will assess skin growths or lesions and give you an indication if the growth is a melanoma skin cancer. An article published in the journal JAMA Dermatology by Wolf and colleagues, looked at four apps and their ability to assess the risk of melanoma skin cancer.

This is how the apps work. If you are worried about a growth or lesion on your skin, you would send a photograph of the lesion to the app and it would provide feedback about the likelihood of the lesion being a skin cancer, such as melanoma. It is definitely convenient and could save you a time consuming trip to the dermatologist. But the most important question is how accurate is the app?

This is what the researchers did. They measured the performance of a total of four smartphone apps in assessing the risk of melanoma when a photograph of a lesion was sent to the app. Three of the apps that Dr. Wolf's group tested performed instant in-phone diagnosis of a photograph of the skin lesion, and Wolfe tested one app that sends the picture of the mole to a dermatologist who evaluates it for the likelihood of melanoma.

To test the apps, Wolf's group of researchers sent photographs of 188 moles, 60 of which were confirmed as melanoma, to four different apps for evaluation.

The performance of smartphone applications in telling which lesions were melanoma was highly variable with three or four smartphone applications incorrectly classified 30 percent or more of melanomas as "unconcerning."

Here is the real problem. If you rely on these apps it could delay the diagnosis of melanoma. Melanoma is deadly if it is not detected early. If the app gives you a false sense of security that a mole is not concerning, you could be risking your life.

What was the result with the fourth app that sent the photograph of the skin lesion to a dermatologist? The dermatologists correctly identified the suspicious moles 98 percent of the time!

It looks like you should always see your dermatologist if you are worried about a skin lesion or growth. It may be a matter of life or death.

One final point. It is very important that you monitor your moles on a regular basis. There are apps that can help you both keep track of your moles by organizing and storing photographs of your moles, and remind you when it is time to check your moles. If there are any changes in existing moles or growths or if you see new growth, you can then go to a dermatologist. One example of an app that can help you track moles and remind you that it is time for your skin examination is, UMSkinCheck, a free app from the University of Michigan.