Diagnosing Skin Cancer via iPhone: The Apps to Know

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Are you keeping an eye on your moles? Really, though? In light of the shortage of dermatologists, a market has developed to augment DIY monitoring of skin anomalies of all sorts. Instagram filters not recommended.

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Forty-two percent of Americans live in areas that are "underserved by dermatologists," according to a set of recent and oft-cited journal studies. Long lines for Botox? Hardly. With all the cosmetics hoopla, it can be easy to forget that dermatology is most often serious business. Skin cancer, for instance, is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. When caught early, it's also entirely treatable.

Here's where things get interesting: Yes, people get a lot of moles, and moles tend to make people very nervous (with reason!). Yet in truth, while it's important to closely monitor your moles, most really are benign. 

It takes just minutes for a good doctor to do a check, but compare that to the one to four months the average American currently has to wait to get an appointment. Moles aren't the only dermatologic condition that's simple to diagnose, either. Acne has a high cure rate, given just a handful of data points. Rosacea, eczema... the list goes on.

What this translates to is a massive market of conditions so easy to diagnose that they possess relatively low liability, a fact that's putting dermatology at the forefront of some extremely impressive mobile and telemedicine technology.

"Mobile dermatology solutions can help solve the problem of access, and that's fueling a lot of funding," says Unity Stoakes, co-founder of the Manhattan-based StartUp Health, an acceleration academy for health and wellness entrepreneurs. "Anyone with a smartphone has access to affordable apps, built-in diagnostic devices, and thereby the ability to connect with specialists who can help them monitor and check their skin." 

We test drove five apps and sites heading up the trend:

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Skin Scan: The Contagion of mole-checkers, Skin Scan's website sports a ticker board of how many low, medium, and high-risk moles it's diagnosed to date, along with an unsettling map showing exactly where in the world each case occurred. The app itself is--thankfully--less dramatic. Take a picture of your mole, upload it, and Skin Scan will, within minutes, use a proprietary algorithm to analyze the fractal patterns of your skin. This, in turn, can determine if a mole is growing according to pattern or abnormally, a sign of melanoma. If a mole appears suspect, the Skin Scan can steer you to nearby dermatologists. Importantly, you can archive your results, meaning you can also track growth over weeks and months. Worth keeping in mind: The service is a bit picky with pics, so take a few shots of each spot. Cost: $4.99 for the initial download, and free thereafter.

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SpotCheck: For a somewhat more entertaining romp with melanoma (if you find mole jokes funny. And they can be. Sort of...), SpotCheck employs the services of a team of dermatologists who've signed on to peer at photos of your moles in their spare time. Impressively, the app lets you know within 24 hours whether whoever looked at your case thinks you might want to consider seeing a live MD. Like Skin Scan, Spot Check provides a list of docs tailored to your location, should you need a follow-up. Props for some good photo-taking tips, as well. Cost: $4.99 to download, and free after that.

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Skin of Mine: If there were a beauty contest for derm apps, Skin of Mine would win it. The app offers up a sleek Vitruvian Man-style avatar to which you can add tags linking to photos you upload of a host of anatomical concerns--from moles and pimples to redness, wrinkles, lip plumpness, and even tooth whiteness (fun, or demoralizing, you might ask). Like SpotCheck, Skin of Mine relies on telemedicine; living, breathing health care practitioners analyzing your data. Once you upload your photo, you're directed to a screen where you can select an expert for your virtual visit, answer some questions, and get a diagnosis in under 24 hours. A word of warning: The site is still in beta, and when we tested, the expert pickings were beyond sparse. Moreover, not all were MDs; important to know, as it means you can't necessarily get a prescription should your diagnosis call for one. Cost: App is free. Each consult, around $50.

Direct Dermatology: Live in California? Lucky. Direct Dermatology is hands-down the most developed and comprehensive service in this group. But as yet it's only been rolled out in the Golden State, where it received a grant from the California Healthcare Foundation Innovation Fund. More regions are coming, though, and you can get on the notification list here. Process is beyond easy: No app yet, but sign up on the website, fill out a medical history form, upload a photograph of your particular concern and get a virtual consult report from a board-certified dermatologist--many, with prestigious and exciting degrees--within two days. If you need a prescription, you can pick it up at your local pharmacy. Cost: No app, consult is $85. Notably, like Skin of Mine, the appointments offered by Direct Dermatology aren't covered by insurance, but the site does point out that visits are reimbursable from HSA accounts.

Bonus, an app for acne:

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Novimedicine: After years of dealing with patient-physician access problems while working at the Mayo Clinic, dermatologist Joshua Spanogle teamed up with his brother Seth, a developer, to take on a single problem: acne. Set to launch this fall, Novimedicine relies solely on a set of detailed questions and three uploaded photo, all of which is sent to a dermatologist for evaluation. Each patient receives a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of his or her new prescription and plan, as well as an archived log of progress to refer to and build on for future visits. In this way, Spanogle believes he can effectively treat up to 85% of all acne cases -- with no foot set in the office. And here's some unusual trivia: In his spare time, Josh writes bestselling "medico-science" thrillers. Make of this what you will, but the feedback report for this site was definitely the most engaging and fun-to-read (acne! Be gone! Not quite that fun, but you get the idea). Cost: App is free to download; $59 per consult ($20 discount if you sign up now).

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Sara Reistad-Long is a journalist based in New York City. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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