Technologists constantly predict a future that will bring us hand-held gadgets that can diagnose every human ailment, much like the fictional Tricorder in the sci-fi franchise Star Trek.
The truth is, it’s already happening in spurts, like the ubiquitous wrist bands that monitor everything from the number of steps we take each day to our sleep patterns and our heart rate.
But what about diagnosing more serious concerns like skin cancer? Actually, there’s an app for that – more like 200 of them.
On September 25 The Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology reported a surge in the number of mobile apps which claim to help users monitor and diagnose a variety of skin diseases, but at least one Colorado doctor is urging caution.
“There are 229 dermatological applications out there and most are free,” said Robert Dellavalle, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and Associate Professor of Dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Yet this is an area of buyer beware because there are no regulations and no guarantees that these apps are providing accurate medical information.”
The Journal study found apps that do everything from monitor psoriasis and melanoma to dispensing sun screen advice. Others monitor a single malady like acne, rosacea, psoriasis or eczema. One app, Dr. Mole, allows users to photograph a mole and monitor changes to determine if it’s cancerous. Patients and doctors can even interface apps that let users get pathology results from their phone.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that it will regulate only the small number of apps that act like medical instruments, such as those capable of performing ultrasounds or other procedures.
“There is a huge expansion of medical apps across all disciplines now. This will require some caution by users but it also opens up new opportunities,” Dellavalle said. “I think most apps are generally safe right now, but I would not rely solely on them. I would cross-reference them with other apps, other people and with your doctor.”
Mike Pearson is a 30-year veteran of newspaper and magazine journalism and former Features Editor at the Rocky Mountain News. He currently teaches journalism at Metropolitan State University of Denver.