Your Health Knowledge at Your Fingertips

Maryam Sadeghi, PhD | May 14, 2014 | Tech Apps TeleDermatology

In the world of developing technology, there’s an app for everything. We rely on our smartphones and tablets for everything from finding recipes and restaurants to tracking workouts and planning budgets. Since their beginnings as a source of entertainment, apps have developed into an indispensable resource and tool for even the least tech-savvy individuals, simply because they provide convenient solutions to most of our daily problems, right in the palm of our hand. The popularity and accessibility of smartphone applications have inevitably carried into the health industry. It is no surprise that apps are now being developed for patients, doctors, hospitals and other primary care providers. The formerly tightly-closed steel doors of patient care and management are now becoming more open to increasing efficiency, accessibility and reducing insurance costs using the latest technologies. Apps are no longer merely a good tool for passing time; they have developed into reliable software that can be trustworthy enough even for the healthcare system. With backlogged hospitals and long waits at the doctor’s office, people are being discouraged from reaching out to their healthcare providers for their medical needs, and instead are turning to the Internet for questionable self-diagnoses. The latest smartphone technologies are providing a solution to this problem by giving patients convenient new methods of seeing or communicating with their doctors, more control over their health needs, and an increase in access to trusted health resources. Some apps even come with physical hardware or an attachable device, meaning the traditional image of an app being simply a passing fad is on its way out. Drawing on the roots of EMR/EHR, patient-use applications and devices are proving to be useful in helping to bridge the gap between patients and healthcare providers.

Although seeing a doctor online may be hard to accept for even the most smartphone-dependent individuals, one area of medicine that particularly benefits from this digital shift in healthcare is dermatology. By using teledermatology, as it is called, to share images of their skin concerns and securely exchange information through digital means, patients can remain connected with their specialists anytime, anywhere. Since most dermatologists primarily use naked-eye clinical evaluations to diagnose skin conditions, teledermatology is efficient and effective, and is becoming increasingly popular within the medical community. Globally, skin specialists are accepting teledermatology as a valuable resource for increasing efficiency and encouraging ongoing learning within their field. Patients, too, are benefiting from this increase in access to specialists – and not just those who run all their errands via smartphone. For many patients who do not live in urban areas, seeing a dermatologist can require hours of commuting, or even an overnight trip to the city, all for an appointment that may take less than 15 minutes. Furthermore, because of the low numbers of dermatologists (only 60 dermatologists in the province of British Columbia), these skin specialists are often inundated with appointments and requests for referrals, leading to excessive wait times and frustrated patients. While many have accepted this as the status-quo for seeing a skin specialist, for people with pressing concerns or time-sensitive issues, waiting 8 months to see a dermatologist can be more than just inconvenient, it can be dangerous.

A specific example in which the disadvantages of the traditional system are particularly pronounced is in skin cancer screening. Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in North America, with over 150 million cases worldwide. The plus side is that with early detection, survival rates are as high as 98%. While 70% of skin cancers cases are discovered by patients themselves, the unfortunate truth is that the general public does not know what to look for, nor how to check for warning signs in order to catch the cancer early, and the survival rate for a late-stage diagnosis can drop as low as 15%. The best method of prevention and early detection is to keep an eye on and regularly monitor moles to track any changes that may occur over time – a big warning sign for skin cancer. The difference in outcome with early detection means playing it safe and seeking medical attention is essential. However, the current available methods for screening are limited by the number of skin specialists and the extreme wait-times, which like in other cases, can discourage people from seeking help. By giving patients the tools and resources to take photos of their moles and communicate with their skin specialists, smartphone and other teledermatology applications can empower patients, allowing them to take personal control of their skin health. Why wait 8 months to see a doctor when you can connect with him (or her) as quickly as you can take a selfie?

The introduction of telederm apps and systems targets this exact need. Instead of waiting months to speak with a specialist, patients can take photos or videos of their skin concerns and send them to a doctor, all from the comfort and convenience of their own home. The doctor receiving the images can then assess the image, provide feedback and determine whether an in-person appointment is required. By sending their images to a specialist, patients don’t have to rely on worrying self-diagnoses, and can get peace of mind. This process reduces the time, money and resources required for a patient to see their doctor, and allows doctors to better manage their time, ensuring priority is given to those patients who need it the most.

While skin cancer screening is an extreme example of the advantages of digital health applications, it is a particularly eye-opening one. We are fortunate enough to be living in an age where technology is being developed to provide patient-centric solutions and to increase access to the medical community. For some, that might mean checking in with your doctor on your smartphone right after looking up the score of last night’s hockey game, while for others, the traditional methods may seem more appealing. Regardless, as smartphones continue to take over our generation, and as the idea of an app gets redefined, the possibilities are endless, and there will always be “an app for that”.