A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center underscores the potential danger of using consumer apps as medical diagnostic tools.

Researches examined four popular apps designed to detect melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Users photograph the skin lesions and the app determines whether or not it is melanoma.

The findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Dermatology found the accuracy of the apps to be widely inconsistent. Researchers tested the apps on 188 moles, 60 of which were known to be melanoma. The best-performing app, which uses trained dermatologists to diagnose the moles in the photos, was correct in 98.1% of the cases. The worst-performing app detected melanoma only 6.8% of the time.

Ed. Note:

Aware that the flood of medically related apps represents a potential health threat, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans in July 2011 to regulate certain smartphone apps that work in conjunction with medical devices that the agency already regulates. The FDA Safety and Innovation Act, which Congress passed in 2012, allows the FDA to regulate some medical apps on smartphones, but there remain questions about which apps will fall under the regulations and which will escape scrutiny.

The need for medical app literacy on the part of regulators and consumers comes at a time when medical costs are growing like a cancer and the healthcare system is becoming more fragmented and time-constrained. If app developers really want to provide a service they should help users become better informed and more proactive about their personal healthcare. What we need are personal health management apps that work together with diagnostic and other medical apps to provide consumers with a holistic and contextual view of their health and healthcare. 

If apps can convey the message that the primary responsibility for healthcare rests with the individual, not with the medical system, they just might be worth a few bucks.

Photo by Scott Robinson