New App Helps Dermatology Medical Students Detect Skin Cancer

One of the biggest challenges that medical students (and even residents) face is lack of practical experience. While medical education is extensive, much of it is learned in classroom or in books. Dermatologists, for example, become skilled at knowing whether a lesion is malignant or not from years of experience and seeing thousands of moles.1 While medical students have been taught the framework of the ABCDE (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evoultion) rule of melanoma for many years, this rule doesn’t teach students the intuition that comes with the experience of practice.2

The importance of catching melanoma early

Why is it so important to be able to identify a melanoma lesion at the first look? Melanoma is very curable disease, especially if it is caught in the early stages.3 Stage I melanoma has a ten-year survival rate of 90%, but if caught at Stage II, the rate is significantly lower (40-67%). This makes recognition and the resulting treatment critical.

Swipe left for malignant lesions

So how do you expose medical students to hundreds of moles, without making them spend years in a dermatology clinic? A group of physicians at the West Virginia University had an idea. They created a web-based application they called “Skinder.”2 Similar in design to its more social, and decidedly less medical, counterpart (the dating app Tinder), students swipe left or right on a picture, though this time, the picture is of a mole, and the right swipe designates a benign lesion, while a left swipe indicates that the lesion is malignant. Students are then rewarded with an immediate confirmation of their correct or incorrect response.1 This application gives medical students the opportunity to gain intuition about how malignant mole looks, in a much shorter timeframe.2

Increased ability to identify cancerous lesions

Does the Skinder app work? Researchers tested the application by splitting medical students into two groups.1 These groups were tested on a group of pictures of moles and asked to determine which ones were cancerous. They were then had an hour of education, either the ABCDE rule of melanoma4 or the Skinder app. After their hour, they were tested again on another group of pictures of moles. Both groups had a pre-test score of approximately 75%. The ABCDE group had a post-test score of 77.5%, but the Skinder group had post-test score of 86.3%. This significant increase indicates that the application does indeed improve medical students’ ability to recognize cancerous moles.1 Beyond this, students felt that they more likely to go back and use the application to study again, if given the opportunity.

Potential future users of the app

The designers of Skinder recognize the benefit this application could have for people other than medical students. They would like to create a free, phone-based app that can be used by providers such as primary care physicians, nurses and physician assistants.3 They feel that it may even benefit patients who are at risk for melanoma, to help them detect malignant skin lesions earlier.

This application also paves the way for other visual learning applications or other tools that can help medical students gain visual pattern recognition and intuition, especially in other fields that rely on visual recognition such as radiology or ophthalmology.3 Hopefully applications such as Skinder will help medical students with earlier and more accurate diagnoses, which can help save lives.

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