AI for skin cancer detection gets FDA greenlight

Be honest: When was the last time you went in for a skin cancer screening?

The good news is, a new technology may make it easier than ever for your regular doctor to screen you for skin cancer.

The FDA cleared an AI-enabled skin cancer detection device for primary care providers. The device will make it easier for PCPs to accurately provide initial skin cancer screenings.

Today, we’re debunking a few common skin cancer myths to highlight just why this device is so exciting.

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

Is AI for skin cancer detection really necessary?

Skin cancers are some of the most under-estimated diseases out there. Let’s take a look at two of the most common myths.

Myth #1: Skin cancers are superficial and not that dangerous

While it’s true that skin cancers may not be deadly, this is not always the case—especially with melanomas, the most invasive form of skin cancer. 

And for skin cancers to truly remain superficial health annoyances, it’s essential that they be caught early.

Plus, skin cancers are quite common. In the U.S., 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed annually. While rarer, melanomas ring in at just under 100,000 annual diagnoses.

Myth #2: Skin cancer detection is just about keeping an eye out for strange-looking moles

With these details, we don’t blame you if you’re looking at the moles on your arms and legs right now with added suspicion. But do you even know what to look for?

Skin cancer self-screening wisdom dictates keeping an eye out for the ABCDE telltale signs:

  • Asymmetry: one half of a mole is unlike the other
  • Border: an irregular or scalloped border on a mole
  • Color: a spot whose color varies from one area to another
  • Diameter: melanomas are typically over 6 millimeters, but can be diagnosed when smaller
  • Evolving: the spot has changed in size, shape, color, texture over time OR it’s different from other spots on the body

But these warning signs aside, as it turns out, the naked human eye may not be very reliable for detecting skin cancer. But are you doomed to miss skin cancers unless you go to a dermatologist’s office?

This is where the DermaSensor device comes in.

In a study of detection accuracy comparing the AI-enabled skin cancer detection device, researchers found that DermaSensor accurately predicted skin cancer 96% of the time. This compares to an 83% detection rate for primary care doctors.

The sensor still has a ways to go before it can accurately rule out benign moles, succeeding at this task 21% of the time. However, this accuracy is still higher than the 0% rate of the primary care providers in the study, who biopsied all benign moles.

The device’s algorithm is founded on thousands of other mole scans. It works by scanning a mole through a probe placed directly on the spot. Within a minute or so, the device gives a score between zero and ten. Zero indicates monitoring, while a score between one and ten indicates further investigation. The higher the score, the greater the chance of malignancy. You especially don’t want a score between eight and ten, which amounts to a 40% chance of malignancy.

The results get even more exciting when it comes to dark-skinned patients. 

Historically, physicians have been even worse at detecting skin cancer in Black people and others with dark skin. Misconceptions about BIPOC patients’ risk for skin cancer and manifestations that appear different than textbook examples of white patients’ skin cancers lead to later diagnoses for these patients—and more death.

DermaSensor found that its results for its light-skinned and dark-skinned patient samples were similar: 96% accuracy for the former and 92% for the latter. Granted, the dark-skinned sample was smaller, which limits the results’ generalizability. However, the FDA has cleared the company to market for all skin types.

Great! Can I skip my annual dermatology visit now?

Not so fast.

Despite this advancement, patients should still see a dermatologist for an annual full-body skin cancer check. 

“Dermatologists are great at evaluating skin lesions,” said DermaSensor CEO Cody Simmons. “It’s literally their expertise. What [primary care doctors] need is something that is not just high performance, but is quick and easy to use.”

Getting this device into more primary care offices will make it easier for patients’ generalist doctors to serve as a triage point at the annual physical. We can see more doctors confidently intercepting patients with trouble spots on their skin who may otherwise be hesitant to make a dermatology screening appointment. 

In the end, with this device—and more skin cancer screening counseling—we hope more people will get themselves screened and treated early for skin cancer, preventing unnecessary disfiguring and even death. That’s what we call a win for preventive health.

Now, go ahead and slather on that sunscreen—yes, even in the winter!

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