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Photo: Shutterstock.

Photo: Shutterstock.


The Inertia

Skin cancer kills too many people each year for one primary reason: it’s diagnosed too late. Most skin cancers can be easily isolated and removed if caught early, but once the cancer metastasizes through the deep layers of skin, it becomes a whole different battle. So why don’t people just get checked?

Well, the thing is, it’s easy to continually put off a dermatologist visit for a whole host of reasons: cost, time, and convenience just to name a few. A check-up doctor’s appointment, especially at the dermatologist, has the tendency to get pushed to the very bottom of the to-do list. Plus, a suspicious mole or spot rarely creates enough discomfort to motivate you to seek medical attention.

The amazing thing about dermatology is that it’s an incredibly visual-based form of medicine. A simple image can easily reveal to a dermatologist what is likely plaguing the patient. In fact, dermatology students frequently learn how to diagnose conditions using only photographs.

Based on this premise, dermatology practices across the country are working to implement “tele-dermatology” into their conventional practice, and all-online dermatology practices are opening their doors. This allows doctors to video chat with patients or offer a diagnosis based on a high quality image.

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Implementing this form of technology makes the practice of dermatology more efficient. Patients are more likely to submit photos for examination, since this requires little time and effort, and doctors are able to quickly flag questionable marks as problematic or normal. From there, patients can have piece of mind, knowing that they’re healthy, or they can take immediate action to cope with their situation. This method also allows doctors to allocate more of their in-office time to dealing with patients already diagnosed with an issue, and it helps practices prioritize appointments based upon the severity of diagnoses.

Tele-dermatology lends itself to more than just the diagnosis of skin cancer though. It’s also incredibly effective for diagnosing various forms of acne, rosacea, poison ivy, cold sores, eczema, and psoriasis.

Despite the clear benefits of tele-dermatology, there are of course drawbacks. An image or video may not be sufficient to properly diagnose all skin problems. Particularly, full body rashes can be problematic, since they require a full knowledge of the patient’s medical history and personal habits before they can be diagnosed and treated.

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Additionally, purely online tele-dermatology practices have popped up, and in some cases these practices can be lacking in quality. As long as there are real, certified doctors on the other end, the format can work well, but if the people on the other end of your email don’t know what they’re doing, you may be at risk of a misdiagnosis. For example, a recent study found 16 different practices that offered misdiagnoses or errors when researchers posing as patients submitted stock photos of classic skin conditions.

As with all new medical practices and trends, it’s important to approach tele-dermatology with cautious optimism. Although convenience is wonderful, it’s no substitute for quality healthcare. However, if tele-dermatology can be used in a way to augment the quality of existing dermatology practices by making regular “check-ups” more accessible, then it could be a valuable tool in the fight against skin cancer.

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