The findings, published in JAMA Dermatology, suggest that people who rely on these apps may not get the medical treatment they need in a timely manner, according to a news release from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Schools of the Health Sciences.
The study found that three out of four smartphone apps examined misdiagnosed 30 percent or more of melanomas, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer. The apps analyze submitted images of skin lesions. Although they include disclaimers that the results are for educational purposes only, the researchers noted that there is a risk that patients may rely on the app rather than seeking a doctor. The apps are not subject to any regulatory oversight, according to the study.
“Smartphone usage is rapidly increasing, and the applications available to consumers have moved beyond communication and entertainment to everything under the sun, including health care,” said lead researcher Dr. Laura Ferris in the news release. “These tools may help patients be more mindful about their health care and improve communication between themselves and their physicians, but it’s important that users don’t allow their ‘apps’ to take the place of medical advice and physician diagnosis.”
To test the accuracy of the apps, the researchers uploaded 188 images of skin lesions to four applications. The apps have various ways of analyzing the images – from using automated algorithms to examination by an anonymous board-certified dermatologist.
“Only the application that utilized dermatologists for a personal review of user images, essentially functioning as a tool to facilitate teledermatology, provided a high degree of sensitivity in diagnosis – just one of the 53 melanomas was diagnosed as “benign” by the experts reading the images,” the news release states. However, this particular app was also the most expensive, costing $5 per image evaluation.
The study’s authors noted that people who are uninsured or economically disadvantaged are particularly vulnerable.
“If they see a concerning lesion but the smartphone app incorrectly judges it to be benign, they may not follow up with a physician,” said Ferris, an assistant professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Technologies that decrease the mortality rate by improving self- and early-detection of melanomas would be a welcome addition to dermatology. But we have to make sure patients aren’t being harmed by tools that deliver inaccurate results.”
Sources: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences news release, JAMA Dermatology