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Class Notes Profiles

iPhony? Testing tech

Dr. Laura Korb Ferris, Arts ’93, debunked the power of an app to spot skin cancer.

Worried a mole on your neck could be cancerous? Some say a smart phone app can provide the answer, but Ferris, a dermatologist and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, wasn’t so sure.

She and a team of researchers from the university gathered pictures of verified melanoma lesions  the deadliest form of skin cancer. They evaluated the lesions using four smart phone apps that claimed to be able to diagnose melanoma based on a photo. The results alarmed Ferris. Many of the apps misdiagnosed potentially deadly melanoma as benign.

“There is definitely a place for technology in the delivery of dermatology, but our feeling is a tool has to be tested and validated with physician involvement,” Ferris says.

After graduating, Ferris earned a doctorate in immunology from Johns Hopkins University and a medical degree from the University of Maryland. She teaches students and residents, does clinical research, and treats patients.

Given the aging population and popularity of tanning beds, skin cancer is on the rise and dermatologists are busier than ever. Many patients turn to smart phone apps or their primary care doctors, who aren’t always skin experts. Ferris sees a health care gap. She is working with a computer science group at Carnegie Mellon University to design a more reliable software program to help these doctors identify skin cancer.

“One of the things that drives people to look for apps is we have a shortage of dermatologists,” Ferris explains. “We’re working on developing software tools to help primary care doctors figure out which lesions need immediate attention.” Jessie Bazan


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