Phone apps may delay skin cancer diagnosis

Picture of mole and magnifying glass
Image caption Researchers say you must seek medical advice if you are concerned about a mole

Using a smartphone app to decide whether a mole is cancerous could delay sometimes life-saving treatment, according to American researchers.

The University of Pittsburgh scientists put four applications to the test by showing them 188 pictures of cancers and less concerning skin conditions.

Three of the apps wrongly labelled the cancerous lesions as unproblematic in almost a third of cases.

Doctors warn using phones rather than seeking expert help could be harmful.

The research, published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, looked at four commonly used applications.

The images selected to test the apps were all of skin lesions that were later removed and checked for an accurate diagnosis.

Three of the apps analysed the pictures using automated algorithms, without the involvement of doctors.

But users submitting pictures to the fourth app had their images reviewed by a qualified skin specialist.

In this case only one out of 53 cancerous legions was misdiagnosed, but this app cost $5 (£3.10) per use.

Prof Laura Ferris, lead researcher of the study, said: "It is important that users don't allow their apps to take the place of medical advice and physician diagnosis.

"If they see a concerning lesion but the smartphone app incorrectly judges it to be benign, they may not follow up with a physician," she added.

Deborah Mason, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: "There are a number of mole-check apps on the market - those that purport to offer diagnosis should be treated with caution.

"A diagnosis can only be made by a medical professional and anyone with a suspicious mole should speak to their GP or dermatologist about it."

The researchers also raised concerns about the lack of regulation of applications purporting to give medical advice.

The US Food and Drug Administration is currently looking at the possibility of regulating some applications related to health.

Last year in America two application developers were fined for making unsubstantiated claims that their software could treat acne using a coloured light from a smartphone.

The UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, said: "The regulation of software such as these health applications is complex and needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

"Work is progressing at the European level to produce the appropriate guidance to most effectively regulate this rapidly growing area."

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