Conference Coverage

Misleading information, reimbursement among the barriers to teledermatology progress



Smartphone applications that provide advice to people about their skin lesions may provide misleading information that could result in not seeking care from a dermatologist, Suephy C. Chen, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Suephy Chen of Emory Jeff Craven/MDedge News

Dr. Suephy Chen

Even with disclaimers, there are people who want a “quick and easy answer,” and these apps can provide misleading information that “can lead them down a wrong diagnostic pathway,” said Dr. Chen, professor of dermatology and director of the teledermatology service at Emory University, Atlanta. Users not only include lower income or uninsured patients, but busy, high-powered executives.

Apps focused on photo storage are used to help patients track lesions for changes, with some apps dedicated to total body mole mapping. However, while these apps may empower patients to perform regular self skin checks, there is a question of whether they are HIPAA secure, Dr. Chen said. Another issue is that the many different app choices on the market may make it difficult for providers to keep up with which app a particular patient is using, she added. “If you have 10 different patients coming in with 10 different apps, it’s going to be really hard for you to learn all of those and be able to manipulate that easily, especially in the 15-minute slot.”

Smartphone and tablet apps that offer reminders to perform monthly skin checks or apply sunscreen when outdoors are plentiful. Dr. Chen noted that, while the efficacy of these apps are not known, they are similar to less high-tech technology like alarms or calendar reminders. “[They] are really kind of neat and fun. It’s kind of boring to just get a reminder, and you tune it out if you get a reminder on your calendars, so this may be a new way to help people,” she said.

Wearables also track users’ sun exposure, and range from a UV sensor on the thumb that measures sun exposure over a period of months to clip-on wearables and temporary tattoos that tell users when to apply or reapply sunscreen. Some devices allow entry of an individual’s Fitzpatrick skin type and can detect temperature and humidity, she noted.

Risk-calculating apps use images taken from smartphone cameras to determine the risk of melanoma, using algorithms that consider color and pattern recognition, but these apps are not as accurate as dermatologists, she said. In a study published in 2013, the app that sent images directly to a dermatologist was the most effective, compared with apps that relied on an automated algorithm to analyze the images (JAMA Dermatol. 2013 Apr;149[4]:422-6).

One of the conclusions the authors made was that feedback was slow for the one that required the image be sent to a dermatologist. “As opposed to just a minute and spitting out the result, it took 24 hours. My argument is 24 hours is still a lot faster than if you tried to call and get an appointment with a dermatologist,” Dr. Chen commented.

One step above teledermatology is teledermoscopy, or using a mobile, smartphone-attached device to send images to a dermatologist over a secure cloud service for review. “Most of us would agree that it would just take too long to do a live video with a patient,” Dr. Chen pointed out. “They may as well just come in anyway. It’ll take you 40 minutes to be able to take a look at that mole on the video, but to do it in a store-and-forward format can be quite efficient.”

However, she noted that one barrier to entry for teledermoscopy is defining the type of service, such as whether apps will offer provider-to-provider or patient-to-provider services. “That is fraught with its own details and issues, especially with photo quality.”

Another barrier, reimbursement from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for teledermatology, is “the real sticking point,” Dr. Chen continued. Under a 2019 CMS Final Rule, telemedicine is only covered if the patient is already established within the practice, and reimbursement for Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System codes G2010 and G2012 relating to telemedicine ranges between $12 and $14.

Based on her back-of-the-envelope calculation, she added, “I would have to see 180 patients in a half-day session by this method in order to generate my salary, and that would just be impossible.”

Dr. Chen said that teledermatology is the “way of the future” and hopes the CMS Final Rule is reconsidered so the technology can be used to help solve some of the growing issues in the dermatology field. “There’s no way we can meet the demands of an increasingly aging population by an in-person brick and mortar sort of paradigm,” she said, noting that, even in an urban setting, it can be difficult to see a dermatologist.

Dr. Chen reports relationships with BioPharmX, Dermecular Therapeutics, Leo Pharma, Phoenix Tissue Repair, Trevi Therapeutics, and Unilever.

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