The apps are poorly regulated and cannot be relied upon to produce accurate results.
Smartphone apps used as ‘early warning systems’ for skin cancer are poorly regulated and frequently cannot be relied upon to produce accurate results, according to experts.
Skin cancer detection apps are designed to ensure that the right people seek medical attention by providing a risk assessment of a new or changing mole by using a specialised algorithm.
Researchers based in the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research in collaboration with the Centre of Evidence-Based Dermatology at the University of Nottingham have analysed a series of studies produced to evaluate the accuracy of six different apps.
Their results, published in The BMJ, reveal a mixed picture, with only a small number of studies showing variable and unreliable test accuracy among the apps evaluated.
Early detection and treatment is key.
With skin cancer having one of the highest global incidences of any cancer. Early detection and treatment, particularly of melanoma, can improve survival.
According to this new analysis, however, apps may cause harm from failure to identify potentially fatal skin cancers, or from over-investigation of false-positive results – for example removing a harmless mole unnecessarily.
Hywel Williams, Professor of Dermatology at the University of Nottingham, said; “Although I was broad minded on the potential benefit of apps for diagnosing skin cancer, I am now worried given the results of our study and the overall poor quality of studies used to test these apps. My advice to anyone worried about a possible skin cancer is – if in doubt, check it out with your GP.”
Lead researcher Dr Jac Dinnes added: “This is a fast-moving field and it’s really disappointing that there is not better quality evidence available to judge the efficacy of these apps. It is vital that healthcare professionals are aware of the current limitations both in the technologies and in their evaluations.”
Potential harm through poor regulation.
The authors also drew attention to the regulations governing the evaluation of healthcare apps. Manufacturers can currently apply CE marks to smartphone apps without necessarily being subject to independent inspection by bodies such as the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Co-author Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics in the Institute of Applied Health Research, adds: “Regulators need to become alert to the potential harm that poorly performing algorithm-based diagnostic or risk monitoring apps create.
Dr Dinnes added: “As technologies continue to develop, these types of apps are likely to attract increasing attention for skin cancer diagnosis, so it’s really important that they are properly evaluated and regulated. Of course, we also need to emphasise how important it is to go and see your GP if you have concerns – regardless of what an app might tell you.”