With the increased promotion of different health-focused smartphone apps, researchers are warning about problems with apps designed to test moles, indicating that they may miss many melanomas or incorrectly raise concerns that simple moles may be harmful.
In findings published ths week in the medical journal The BMJ, researchers from the U.K. warn that artificial intelligence algorithms used in popular skin cancer detection apps are simply not reliable enough to properly diagnose problematic skin lesions, and may result in a misdiagnosis or unnecessary medical treatments.
Researchers conducted a review of nine studies done on six smartphone skin cancer apps, where users submit photos for an immediate analysis of whether the lesion is of low, moderate, or high risk of skin cancer.
The data indicates that the apps failed to diagnose melanomas and incorrectly warned people that some moles were suspicious. The apps missed as many as 12% of skin cancer cases and up to 21% of moles were incorrectly identified as cancer.
The researchers determined the apps are not reliable enough to identify all cases of melanoma or other skin cancer, noting there was poor and variable performance of the algorithms in the smartphone apps.
According to the findings, many of the studies reviewed were conducted by the app developers themselves. Also of note, the studies used photos taken by doctors. Comparatively, during real use, user submitted photos will be of much lower quality and clarity than photos taken by a healthcare professional.
While skin cancer is highly treatable if detected early, none of the apps performed well enough to accurately diagnosis early skin cancer. For example, the SkinScan app was evaluated with a single study focusing on 15 moles and five melanomas, and the app failed to identify any of the melanomas.
Diagnosing skin cancer inaccurately can lead to patient panic, unnecessary healthcare tests, and treatment. It can be difficult to treat a patient who believes they have skin cancer, especially if the doctor is informing the patient they actually do not, the researchers warned.
Furthermore, failing to flag skin cancer can lead to missed diagnosis and missed early treatment which can lead to the growth of invasive cancer and potentially serious health consequences later.
Researchers warn that current regulatory processes in Europe are inadequate for protecting the public against the risks created by using smartphone apps to diagnose skin cancer.
Doctors should also be aware of app limitations and inform smartphone app users about the limitations, they wrote.
None of the apps reviewed in the study are approved for use in the United States by the FDA.
The World Health Organization estimates between two to three million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year. Tanning outdoors or using indoor tanning beds greatly increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and non-melanoma skin cancers.