Skin cancer apps are not a substitute for going to the doctor

Apps which diagnose skin cancer are UNRELIABLE and are not a substitute for going to the doctor, claim experts

  • The apps may not be able to recognise rarer conditions or unusual symptoms
  • Wrong diagnoses by apps might delay crucial treatment for cancer 
  • Experts say people must visit a doctor or dermatologist if they are concerned

Mobile apps which claim to detect skin cancer could be endangering the public because they are not regulated, scientists claim.

The apps do not notice all ‘red flag’ symptoms of skin cancer, according to researchers, and are not a replacement for going to see a doctor.

People should also take the apps’ recommendations with a pinch of salt, experts say, and always go to a doctor if they suspect something is wrong.

Researchers worry the technology is not tested thoroughly to make sure they work, may not have expert advice when they are being made, and the software which identifies problems might be flawed.

Some apps have a fairly high success rate and correctly identify 88 per cent of skin cancer cases, according to the study.

But there are concerns that if the apps fail to identify suspicious patches of skin it could delay people’s diagnosis and treatment, with potentially life-threatening effects.

Apps which analyse possible skin cancers using smartphone cameras are not a substitution for going to the doctor, experts say (SkinVision, pictured, was not included in the study) 

Skin cancer detection apps work by the user taking a photo of a suspicious mole or patch of skin and submitting it to the app.

It may then be looked at by a dermatologist, stored so the user can track it for changes over time, or analysed by a computer algorithm to see if it suspect.

These have varying levels of success – teledermatology, in which a real person looks at the picture, correctly identifies 88 per cent of cancers.

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Algorithms can identify 73 per cent of cancers, and both manage to diagnose more than 80 per cent of benign growths.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham say the apps might not recognise rarer or more unusual cancers, or less obvious symptoms.

Technology struggles to recognise some symptoms 

They say technology currently struggles to recognise scaly, crusty areas, ulcers, or growths which do not cause a colour change.

And missing symptoms or giving false negatives could delay crucial treatment.

Early diagnosis results in up to 100 per cent five-year survival, compared with 25 per cent in women and 10 per cent in men diagnosed at a later stage.

Maria Charalambides from the University of Birmingham said: ‘Future technology will play a huge part in skin cancer diagnosis.


There are two main types of skin cancer: non-melanoma, the most common, and melanoma, which is less common but more dangerous.

The following ABCDE rules describe a few changes that might indicate a melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. 

As skin cancers vary, you should tell your doctor about any changes to your skin, even if they are not like those mentioned here. 

  • Asymmetry – the two halves of the area may differ in shape or colour
  • Border – the edges of the area may be irregular or blurred, and sometimes show notches
  • Colour – this may be uneven. Several different shades of black, brown and pink may be seen
  • Diameter – most melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter. Report any change in size, shape or diameter to your doctor
  • Evolution – if you see progressive changes in size, shape or colour over weeks or a few months, you must seek expert help.

If in doubt, check it out! If your GP is concerned about your skin, make sure you see a dermatologist. Your GP can refer you via the NHS. 

Source: British Association of Dermatologists  

‘However, until adequate validation and regulation of apps is achieved, members of the public should be cautious when using such apps as they come with risk.

Apps cannot touch or look closer at the skin like a doctor can

‘Apps specifically based on patient education of skin cancer can offer public health benefits in terms of how to stay safe in the sun, or the warning signs to look out for. 

‘But most apps cannot currently substitute dermatologist review when it comes to actual diagnosis.’

Researchers added that apps lacked the ability to look at finer details with a magnifier or touch the skin, which doctors could do.

The apps used for the study were, Doc24, Mole check App, MoleQuest, OnlineDermClinic, Skin Mole Analysis, Skin of Mine, Skin Scanner and SpotCheck 2.

Skin cancer is the most common form of the disease

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and more than 230,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Around 2,285 people die of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, each year.

It is most often caused by damage from UV rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Skin cancer can often be successfully treated with surgery, but early diagnosis is vital.

New technologies are exciting but do not replace doctors 

Matthew Gass, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: ‘These new technologies for the diagnosis of skin cancer are exciting, but the varying quality available makes it a difficult landscape for people to navigate.

‘These apps are not a replacement for an expert dermatologist, but they can be a useful tool in the early detection of skin cancer.’

One of the most successful of the apps, SkinVision, was not included in the study but claims its service is now on a par with human dermatologists.

Spokesperson Matthew Enevoldson said: ‘We have implemented machine learning components into our technology that has led to a sensitivity of more than 90 per cent for skin cancer recognition, with a specificity of more than 80 per cent, making our service today comparable to dermatologists.

‘In order to optimize the service, we have a dermatologist follow up program in place, where all high-risk photos are automatically sent for review by our team of specialist dermatologists. The technology drives our service and dermatologists overlook the process.’

The study was revealed at the the British Association of Dermatologists’ annual meeting in Edinburgh.

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