UK doctors now using smartphones and AI to help diagnose skin cancer

DermLite DL1
(Image credit: DermLite)

Tens of thousands of patients in the UK will benefit from faster diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer, thanks to accelerated teledermatology rollout by the National Health Service (NHS).

Teledermatology simply combines 'tele' (at a distance) and 'dermatology' (skin care). It doesn't mean telepresence in the sense of a live video call.

Instead, images that are good enough quality to help identify spots, moles, and skin lesions are taken using a phone camera and an adapter with a lens smaller than a 50p coin (or about that of a quarter-dollar). 

The use of this technology is proven to massively reduce waiting time lists and patients can go from diagnosis to treatment in under two months. Teledermatology is currently used in approximately 15% of trusts that offer dermatology services. It can almost double the number of patients a dermatologist can review in a day. 

There are plans to expand its usage nationwide by the end of July 2023. with the deployment of the dermatoscopes to GP practices in rural communities, it is hoped that people will be able to receive a faster diagnosis without having to travel. 

As Dr Tom While, a GP in the rural county of Somerset, said: “Being able to get a swift and specialist opinion on a skin lesion or rash, and advice on treatment or local surgical options, often negates the need to refer the patient on to another hospital to see the specialist in person. This not only reduces waiting lists, but strongly benefits my patients who live in rural areas, saving them from long unnecessary journeys."

• Check out the best otoscopes for checking for ear wax build-up so you don't need to wait on a doctor

In the last year, an enormous 600,000 patients in England have been referred for skin cancer checks, representing a 9% increase from the previous year. In the same period, over 56,000 patients with skin cancer received treatment but now, NHS trusts have been instructed to expand the use of teledermatology in diagnostic centers bypassing wait times for face-to-face appointments. 

The NHS is also conducting trials with magnifying lenses that utilize AI technology to assess skin lesions for signs of cancer within seconds. This technology, known as "Deep Ensemble for the Recognition of Malignancy," or DERM for short, is initially going to be used alongside clinician assessments, but it’s expected to provide faster and more accurate skin cancer detection. This groundbreaking AI device will be the only certified medical device in the UK but could signal towards further use of AI in the medical field very soon. 

In a statement released on the NHS England website, NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard emphasized the importance of embracing digital; technology and alleviating the pressure on NHS services. She said, “Record Number of people are being checked and treated for cancer and thanks to efforts to ensure people come forward with worrying symptoms, we are now diagnosing a higher proportion of cancers at an early stage, increasing people’s chances of beating this cruel disease.”

Despite the consistently high demand for cancer services over the past two years, the NHS has made significant progress in reducing waiting times. The backlog of patients awaiting treatment or cancer ruling has decreased by nearly 15,000 since the summer. This is attributed to successful public awareness campaigns and early diagnosis initiatives, which have resulted in a higher proportion of cancers being diagnosed at an early stage.

The NHS's commitment to diagnosing and treating cancer as early as possible is demonstrated by engaging with teledermatology and AI-powered lenses to deliver diagnostic test results with a 10-day turnaround. By combing these two strategies, more people can be seen faster and receive treatment that could save lives.

While we have yet to review a good phone attachment, we do have a buying guide to microscopes for the scientifically inclined.

Why not check out the best camera phones - perfect for using with a Derm lens!

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Hannah Rooke
Staff Writer

Having studied Journalism and Public Relations at the University of the West of England Hannah developed a love for photography through a module on photojournalism. She specializes in Portrait, Fashion and lifestyle photography but has more recently branched out in the world of stylized product photography. For the last 3 years Hannah has worked at Wex Photo Video as a Senior Sales Assistant using her experience and knowledge of cameras to help people buy the equipment that is right for them. With 5 years experience working with studio lighting, Hannah has run many successful workshops teaching people how to use different lighting setups.