There seems to be an app for everything these days and health apps abound (generating $718 million worldwide in 2011), but are they reliable?
That’s precisely the question a team of researchers with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Dermatology sought to answer when they reviewed four different apps that claim to identify whether a skin lesion is benign or malignant.
It might sound tempting: a free (or inexpensive) app download versus a visit to your doctor? That’s hardly a fair fight. Then again, this might be a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.
The research team, led by Laura K. Ferris, MD, PhD, selected four apps that both claimed to estimate skin cancer risk through analysis of an uploaded image. The team used images that were known to show benign or malignant lesions based on treatment records. Because the goal of the research was to evaluate the accuracy of this kind of app in general, they did not release the names of the apps they tested.
Each of the four apps were tested using a total of 188 photos. 60 of the photos showed confirmed melanomas, the remaining 128 were benign. The results were less than reliable, with three of the four apps incorrectly identifying at least 30% of the known melanomas as benign.
In the words of the researchers: “Reliance on these applications, which are not subject to regulatory oversight, in lieu of medical consultation can delay the diagnosis of melanoma and harm users.”
The highest-performing app actually sends the image directly to a board-certified dermatologist for analysis (at a cost of $5 per image), although users have to wait about 24 hours for the evaluation results.
The conclusion? Buyer beware.
If you’re using an app to track your exercise regimen, caloric intake, or even your blood pressure, you’re probably just fine. But when an app claims to be able to make a diagnosis (in spite of disclaimers that the app is intended for educational purposes), take the results with a grain of salt.
Specifically in this example, if you’re concerned about your skin your best bet is to see your doctor. Use your smartphone to make an appointment, not a (questionable) diagnosis.