Cracking The Body's Source Code With Your Smartphone

A new app will help you diagnose and track skin conditions--from wrinkles to melanoma. But if even doctors haven't fully mastered the use of health apps, it might not be time to start making your phone your primary care physician.

 

You wonder about that mole, don't you? That one there, on your arm, the one that looks like a map of New Jersey—is it it just a mole, or something more? With the Skin of Mine app from Medical Image Mining Labs, your iPhone becomes a powerful tool for monitoring the bumps, moles and lesions that could be harmless marks—or could be the first sign of a cancerous lesion.

Available on iTunes for $2.99, Skin of Mine allows you to track growth or changes in lesions with great precision. For additional fees, you can request the app to push your images to physicians for professional evaluation (this can be costly, although far less than a visit to a dermatologist's office). The app also offers a suite of automated tools to assess the color, shape, and extent of a variety of skin problems. While some of these are dubious--one measures a so-called "wrinkle index" that allows you to compare wrinkles over time "for the purpose of quantifying the effect of an anti-aging regimen"--the app's measures offer prospective dermatology patients a remarkable degree of insight into the health of their skin.

In the iPhone App Store, medical apps are legion—from "platinum-level" clinical information tools to an app that helps you remember to hydrate, the store promises solutions for everyone from hypochondriacs to keepers of the Hippocratic Oath. But Skin of Mine is a breed apart, part of a class of applications that meld cutting-edge diagnostic technology with the personal convenience of the smartphone. Another such app still in development, iCard ECG, features a heart monitor the size of a credit card; press an iPhone thus enabled to your sternum and you get a full-featured cardiogram pulsing in landscape mode across your chest.

It's worth remembering that even for medical professionals, new imaging technologies present pitfalls as well as benefits. When we peer into the body, we're inevitably looking through a scanner darkly; no single imaging technology captures the interaction of the total scope of our physiology. Superimposing these prismatic images to fashion a holistic diagnosis remains an art, however much technology is involved--and physicians will be the first to admit that like any art, theirs is an imperfect one; that these remarkable tools yield false positives and unclear results.

A scan that yields unambiguously-lifesaving data for one patient may plunge another down a rabbit-hole of uncertainty. Having these magical scanners in hand offers health consumers unprecedented power and agency, but it's a power that is fraught with costs and dangers, the mixture of which is both heady and frightening. So take a look at that mole with your phone, but be a little wary of the results.

[Image: Flickr user Clearly Ambiguous]

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