Smartphone

Smartphone App snapping a photo of a suspicious mole with a phone and uploading it to an Smartphone app might seem like the swiftest way to a diagnosis, dermatologists say users should be wary of such technology, especially when it comes to screening for skin cancer.

Several apps allow users to provide a list of symptoms and an image of their skin, whether it be a changing mole or an itchy rash, and submit it for a fee to an online dermatologist. That dermatologist can then recommend a cream, provide information on how to watch a benign looking mole, or suggest making an appointment for an in-person biopsy with a local dermatologist.

The online dermatologist

The practice is called tele dermatology, and it’s not only prevalent in smartphone app stores. Dermatologists say this practice is use in their profession, especially in rural or underserved areas where patients don’t have the opportunity to visit a dermatologist’s office. But with more apps popping up, doctors warn users to be cautious, even if the convenience is tempting.

There’s a huge spectrum in the apps this is the problem, said Dr. Carrie Kovarik, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s difficult to know what’s good, what’s not, what they do, who’s on the other side. If the app is create by a medical provider, that’s usually a good sign, Kovarik said. That way, users can be sure who is on the other side, and if they need a follow-up appointment, the app can connect them.

The orthopedic surgeon

But Dr. Alexander Borve, a California-base orthopedic surgeon who develop one of these apps, called First Derm, said users of his app are able to take feedback from the dermatologists consulting for his product and use it to get an appointment sooner at their local provider. They are very good at triaging skin conditions.

Fahrenbach said that although she appreciates tele dermatology in some situations for skin conditions like acne or eczema, she worries it can provide a false sense of security to patients looking to be check for skin cancer, including melanoma. It doesn’t take the place of a dermatologist. Specifically for moles, it makes me nervous. Melanoma can be so vary in its presentation, she said. And the app relies on the patient to notice an abnormal thing first.

Fahrenbach said that often her patients will come in for a skin check, worry about a mole or spot they’ve noticed on their body, but in doing the check, Fahrenbach will notice other things that need to be further examine. That (mole is) benign, but there’s something they didn’t even notice. That’s a pretty common phenomenon; an app isn’t going to address that issue, she added. And it’s unrealistic to take a picture of every mole on your body and send it in. You might as well go to the doctor.