Melanoma Detection Apps Under FTC Scrutiny

Melanoma detection belongs in the hands of a qualified dermatologist — not a smartphone app — according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Marketers of two apps that claimed to be able to detect melanoma reached settlement agreements with the Federal Trade Commission earlier this week. Mole Detective — which was featured on The Dr. Oz Show — and MelApp each instructed the user to take a picture of his or her mole in question and upload it to the app. It would then analyze the details and the supposed melanoma risk would be rated as high, medium or low. While both app marketers say this information was intended for educational purposes only, the FTC says it gave the impression the apps were diagnostic tools. According to Jessica Rich, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director, there is no scientific evidence to prove the apps are accurate.

“Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace. App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

In fact, the science shows quite the contrary. A 2013 JAMA Dermatalogy study revealed malignant melanomas were missed by such apps 30 to 90 percent of the time. These odds could be lethal, considering the aggressive nature of melanoma. The survival rate is very high when caught in the earliest stages, so prompt treatment is critical. Doctors and the Federal Trade Commission worry that incorrect information provided by the apps could prevent patients from seeking medical attention until it’s too late. Dr. Laura Ferris, who co-authored the JAMA study, shared her concern with NBC News.

“Our study showed these apps are not accurate. They missed melanomas and many of the melanomas they missed were actually quite obvious, so that’s very concerning.”

Mole Detective’s creator, New Consumer Solutions, agreed to pay a $3,930 fine. MelApp’s initial promoter, Health Discovery, is facing a $17,063 fine. Both companies are prohibited from making any medical claims in the future without proper evidence to support them. L-Health, the U.K. based company that took over promotion of Mole Detective in 2012 refused to settle and is facing a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.

Mole Detective and MelApp were taken off the market when the FTC complaints were filed, but similar apps are still available. Consumers are urged to pick up their phone to call a dermatologist for a proper skin cancer screening — not to seek the unsubstantiated advice of melanoma detection apps.

[Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]