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Google, Artificial Intelligence & Your Skin

Why smartphone apps should never substitute for a dermatologist’s care
July 6, 2021
Google AI Skin App

Artificial intelligence may eventually invade every aspect of our lives, even skincare.

Google has already developed a smartphone app that is supposed to help people diagnose skin conditions. The idea is to take a photo of your skin with the phone camera and allow the app to access the image.

Google recently shared a preview of its AI-powered dermatology assist tool. The company says the app uses many of the same techniques that detect diabetic eye disease or lung cancer in CT scans.

How it works

The Internet giant says each year it tracks almost ten billion Google Searches related to skin, nail and hair issues.

The dermatology assist tool is a web-based application that Google intends to test as a pilot program later this year. You launch the app, take three images of the skin, hair or nails from different angles, then you’ll be asked a series of questions about your skin type, how long you’ve had the issue and other symptoms that help the app focus on the possibilities. The app analyzes your information and draws from its knowledge of 288 conditions to deliver a list of possible matching conditions that you can then research further.

Sounds great, right?

Yes, but….

Dive a little deeper into the fine print, and you’ll learn that the app is not intended to provide a diagnosis or substitute for medical advice as many conditions require a dermatologist’s review, in-person examination, or additional testing like a biopsy.

Google says the goal is merely to give people access to authoritative information so they can make a more informed decision about next steps.

Still, there are a couple of issues to be concerned about.

While the app has been evaluated in clinical trials in the European Union, where it has been classified as a Class I medical device, it has not been tested by the FDA for safety or efficacy, and as a result it is not currently available in the United States.

Whether it will be some day is a matter for the FDA to decide.

The other issue is accuracy. An app that potentially delivers a false positive or – even worse – a false negative result could lead to serious consequences for the person using only an AI tool to diagnose skin conditions.

Imagine finding an odd blotch on your skin, taking a photo of the area with your smartphone camera, answering some questions and getting a relieving response: all is well. You put it out of your mind. Meanwhile, perhaps you actually saw an early sign of skin cancer that the AI app failed to detect. You think you’re okay because the app told you so. Except cancer is quietly, insidiously, spreading and growing deeper into the skin.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

Algorithms, artificial intelligence, even basic computer code – all are only as smart as the individuals doing the programming. Human error may be an inevitable part of life, but who do you hold responsible for a health diagnosis removed from actual human contact?

As with virtually all health-related apps, Google’s AI dermatology tool will almost certainly come with a disclaimer that absolves Google of any responsibility for errors the app might make.

If the FDA does eventually approve the app for use in the United States, use the technology as you would a basic Google search – as initial research toward a more complete diagnosis from a board-certified dermatologist.

After all, you really don’t want to trust your life with a smartphone app.

Google admits as much.

“The tool is not intended to provide a diagnosis nor be a substitute for medical advice as many conditions require clinician review, in-person examination, or additional testing like a biopsy. Rather we hope it gives you access to authoritative information so you can make a more informed decision about your next step,” Google product managers wrote in a blog post.

So if you choose to use health-related apps, let that be your first step – not your last.


Let Walk-in Dermatology Take Care of You and Your Skin

If you have skin concerns and want dependable answers fast, you don’t have to worry or wait. Walk-in Dermatology is here to keep you healthy. Our team of board-certified dermatologists and experienced medical staff will address your concerns and provide the necessary care for all your skin conditions. You can also schedule an appointment with us online.

If you can’t make it to one of our offices, we can set up a Video Visit and even prescribe medications remotely. Contact us today at (516) 621-1982.