Smartphone apps that assess risk of skin cancer cant be trusted – BMJ report

A report has been published by the BMJ to examine the validity and findings of studies that examine the accuracy of algorithm based smartphone applications that are designed to assess risk of skin cancer in suspicious skin lesions.

If you have ever seen a BMJ report then you will know how long and complex they can be, so we will do a quick simple roundup on the results found.

Researchers based in the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, in collaboration with the Centre of Evidence-Based Dermatology at the University of Nottingham, have analysed a series of studies produced to evaluate the accuracy of six different apps.

Their results, published in The BMJ, reveal a mixed picture, with only a small number of studies showing variable and unreliable test accuracy among the apps evaluated.

They found the apps may cause harm from failure to identify potentially deadly skin cancers, or from over-investigation of false positive results such as removing a harmless mole unnecessarily.

Some skin cancer apps operate by forwarding images from the smartphone camera to an experienced professional for review, which is essentially image based teledermatology diagnosis. However, of increasing interest are smartphone apps that use inbuilt algorithms (or “artificial intelligence”) that catalogue and classify images of lesions into high or low risk for skin cancer (usually melanoma). These apps return an immediate risk assessment and subsequent recommendation to the user. Apps with inbuilt algorithms that make a medical claim are now classified as medical devices that require regulatory approval.

These apps could be harmful if recommendations are erroneous, particularly if false reassurance leads to delays in people obtaining medical assessment. 

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, and the incidence is increasing as ever, it is always best to discuss such issues with your doctor and not rely on apps.

Duncan Newell

Duncan is a technology professional with over 20 years experience of working in various IT roles. He has a interest in cyber security, and has a wide range of other skills in radio, electronics and telecommunications.

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