Unreliability of skin cancer screening apps.

Unreliability of skin cancer screening apps.

These days, there's an app for almost everything. Many of them make our lives easier, helping us track down the best travel deals or check fantasy football points on the sly. But a new breed of apps may be more harmful than helpful: those aimed at detecting melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

Basically, you snap a photo of a suspicious mole or mark on your skin, and the app assesses the likelihood that it's cancerous. But rather than offering a next-gen health care solution, these programs often misdiagnose, experts say, making you think you're clear of cancer when you're actually not.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tested the accuracy of four popular apps (names not disclosed) aimed at diagnosing melanoma and found that three of them wrongly classified skin marks as benign or "unconcerning" 30 percent of the time. The apps varied wildly in effectiveness, with some getting more diagnoses right than the others.

"If these apps were used strictly for educational purposes, they'd be the ideal adjunct to a doctor's visit," says Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist in New York City who was not involved in the study. "But it's a problem if consumers mistake them for substitutes for a physician's advice. Apps related to cancers, particularly fatal types like melanoma, can be dangerous because they give false reassurance." In other words, never look at your smartphone as a pocket doctor.

Still, Bowe doesn't think all health-related apps are a no-go. "The best use of medical apps might be to reinforce or expand upon topics brought up during a doctor's visit, since there's only so much time allotted for doctor-patient interactions," she says. "Apps designed to educate patients and encourage adherence to therapy between visits for, say, acne or diabetes might be very welcomed by the medical community and patients alike."