Melanoma Detection Apps: Are the Marketing Claims True?

Online resources can provide education for patients, but they should not replace in-person physician evaluation, particularly in cases of possible skin cancer. Patients need to be cautious of marketing claims that lack scientific evidence.



The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed complaints earlier this year against marketers of MelApp and Mole Detective for deceptively claiming their mobile applications (apps) could detect and diagnose symptoms of melanoma. The apps instructed users to photograph a mole with a smartphone camera and input other characteristics, which would enable the app to calculate the mole’s melanoma risk as low, medium, or high. The FTC alleged the marketers lacked scientific support for claims that their product could accurately analyze moles for the ABCDE symptoms of melanoma and/or increase consumers’ chances of detecting skin cancer in early stages.

The FTC reported that US sales of MelApp, whose retail price is $1.99, totaled more than $17,000 from January 2011 through July 2013. Mole Detective, which costs up to $4.99, had US sales totaling more than $50,000 from January 2012 through December 2013.

Settlements in these cases prohibit marketers from claiming that a device such as an app can detect or diagnose melanoma or its risk factors, unless the representation is truthful and supported by reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing of the device. “Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

Patients increasingly use smartphone apps to seek health information and track personal health data. In a June 2015 Cutis article “Prevalence and Impact of Health-Related Internet and Smartphone Use Among Dermatology Patients,” Wolf et al warned that many patients may rely on online resources for information about dermatologic conditions such as melanoma instead of seeking in-person care, which could delay or prevent treatment. In their survey of 775 dermatology patients, 204 indicated they previously attempted to self-diagnose a skin condition using the Internet.

Therefore, it is important for dermatologists to guide patients to reliable online resources while emphasizing the continued need for physician evaluation. “Ideally, online forms of education will increase patients’ sense of self-efficacy while encouraging appropriate consultation for potentially harmful skin conditions,” the authors noted.

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