New Melanoma-Seeking Technology Polarizes The Dermatology Field

Fewer Than One In Four New Doctors Choose Primary Care
Despite a shortage, few new doctors choose to become primary care specialists. Creative Commons

A new type of computer imaging system designed to detect melanoma and precancerous skin lesions is polarizing the dermatology community, with dissenters citing the dangers inhering in technology-driven programs.

The New York Times reports that the scanning interface, dubbed MelaFind, is intended to reduce the amount of unnecessary biopsies by mapping algorithmic recognition models onto moles and other skin complications that a dermatologist finds suspicious. Ideally, the scanner will provide sufficient complex insight for the doctor to determine the next diagnostic step.

However, some physicians are now voicing concern that the new technology may increase the number of false diagnoses and ultimately provide patients and healthcare providers with a false sense of security.

Dr. Robert Lucas, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is one of them. "This technology should still be considered to be in the developmental stage," he told reporters. "We are better off when the system supports doctors who are thorough and unhurried; who examine and listen carefully and who empower patients to practice good surveillance and sun protection."

Jason Connor, a biostatistician at Berry Consultants, agrees with Lucas, and adds that MelaFind is not exempt from the usual margin of error accompanying other automated detection tools. These technologies are often designed to err on the side of caution, and could thus respond to completely benign lesions — the same way most pregnancy tests can mistakenly indicate that a non-pregnant woman is pregnant.

"My concern with MelaFind is that it just says everything is positive," Connor said."I don't think this helps an aggressive doctor, and unaggressive doctors could do just as well if they were more diligent without the device." 

However, others are confident that most doctors will be able to use the new imaging model without becoming dependent on it. Claudi Beqaj, director of commercialization at Mela Sciences, stresses the supplementary nature of the product.

"It will err on the side of caution. We wanted to set the system to have such a high sensitivity that we didn't miss any melanomas," she told reporters. "If they blindly followed MelaFind, they would be biopsying more. The doctor has to make their own clinical judgment."

While the technology remains subject to intense debate in some parts of the medical field, health authorities nevertheless concede the significance of introducing such technology into dermatological areas of practice.

"Until now, you trusted the doctor to make the decision," said Dr. Hensin Tsao, director of the melanoma and pigmented lesion center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Now you've got a three-way interaction. It's a brand new paradigm."

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