Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A screenshot from the SkinVision app

A screenshot from the SkinVision app

Killer Apps

• February 04, 2013 • 4:00 AM

A screenshot from the SkinVision app

Smartphones are useful for many things. Diagnosing melanoma is not one of them.

Smartphones, like Swiss Army knives and SkyMall watches, have a few nifty features and plenty of useless ones. Who needs a checkbook when you’ve got Square, a toolkit when you’ve got iHandy Level, or a babysitter when you’ve got Fruit Ninja? Encyclopedias, gazetteers, even boredom itself now seems obsolete.

Are dermatologists next? A slew of skin cancer-detection apps—with names like SkinVision, SpotCheck, and Mole Detective 2—allow smartphone users to photograph and “analyze” their worrisome blemishes, offering diagnoses such as “problematic,” “high risk,” and “looks okay.” The free or low-cost apps base their findings on algorithms, rather than human expertise, and return results instantly. “Costs far less than an insurance copay, won’t leave a scar, and may save your life!” promises one advertisement. “The survival rate of melanoma is a dismal 15% at stage four,” warns another.

Anxious mole owners are sold. Breathes one reviewer, “Wow. Amazing. U can even save analysis and name mole to show dr or compare w next months photo.” (No app yet exists for turning text-speak into literate English.) “Have been worried about a spot on my dads face,” writes another. “Took a quick pic and got immediate feedback. Great idea, great results. Def recommended.”

Dermatologists are less than thrilled. In fact, they say, the apps are worthless. Writing in JAMA Dermatology, a team of physicians from the University of Pittsburgh put four melanoma apps to the test against 188 clinical images—pictures they’d taken of patients’ skin lesions and later determined, via biopsy, to be malignant or benign. How would a machine stack up against a board-certified dermatologist?

Not so well. Of the three auto-diagnosing apps, the best program missed malignant growths 30 percent of the time; a second performed only slightly better than flipping a coin.

One app, instead of using an algorithm, simply forwarded the photo to an accredited dermatologist, who responded with his considered opinion 24 hours later. At five dollars per lesion, this was the most expensive program, though the e-doctor misdiagnosed just one in 53 melanomas.

Smartphones, the authors note, are becoming increasingly common in medicine; two-thirds of physicians use one in their practice. Health-conscious consumers, meanwhile, can choose among 13,000 wellness apps, from Alzheimer’s aids and blood sugar monitors to diet buddies and fertility calendars—a $718 billion market in 2011.

Cancer-spotting apps aren’t programmers’ first foray into dermatology. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission sued into oblivion the makers of AcnePwner and AcneApp, both of which claimed to use blue and red light treatment to cure zits. (The latter went so far as to cite a study from the British Journal of Dermatology to support its claims.) Together, the apps were downloaded 15,000 times until the FTC forced their purveyors to cease and desist.

But then, teenagers will always be foolish and impulsive, quick to waste a buck on any passing fad. We adults should know better. A smartphone, it seems, does not a smart owner make.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.