The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017, over 87,110 new forms of invasive melanomaswill be diagnosed. Close to 10,000 individuals will die from the disease. But unlike so many other types of cancer, early melanoma screening can contribute to a 5-year survival rate of over 98%. A staggering statistic. The question is, what is and can be done to make these survival rates the norm?
Data Is Critical
“People…operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage.”
– Michael Lewis in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller followed the Oaklands Athletic baseball team General Manager Billy Beane, who, against the grain of his industry, applied the early rules of saber metrics (collecting and assessing in-game data like batting measurements and pitching measurements) to improve his low-budget team’s performance.
The key to success in what was deemed to be the impossible, winning in baseball, was not chance, luck or human intuition, it was prioritizing raw data over human bias. The result was a team that challenged the American league and come roaring back with consecutive wins, making baseball history.
The story of the Oaklands Athletic Team is a powerful one; it reminds us of the importance of overcoming beliefs and subjectivity to reap better results. We often assume that our lives are ruled by data, analysis and artificial intelligence that perfects jobs that humans are not equipped to do. And, truth be told, in many industries it’s been transformative. The role of anesthesiologists is one area of medicine that puts data and technology first (and we’re glad they do!). The airline industry has long been hailed as prioritizing checks, balances, and data to alleviate error, an area richly explored by the surgeon and author Atul Gawande.
But this is not how it works in all specialties. Many areas of medicine remain under the direction of the physician decision-maker without a data safeguard. Unfortunately though, even with years or decades of expertise, our propensity for human error will always remain. Distraction, circumstance, poor memory, age; it all opens doors to mistakes or poor judgment, many of which can be life altering.
Early Melanoma Screening Detection
The field of melanoma screening detection, treatment and recovery are particularly sensitive to error where millimeters can mark the difference between invasive metastasis and a 98% survival rate if caught early. With one person dying of melanoma every hour in the United States each year, the importance of early melanoma detection and careful screening is vital.
Melanoma Screening Standardization Is Here
The good news is that the technology is here to help reduce error and improve data collection in the field of skin cancer. Systems such as total body digital imaging devices like DermSpectra are bringing a new level of standardization to skin screening that was never previously possible. With DermSpectra, ‘image data’ can be captured with high-definition cameras when patients are photographed in a specialized booth. Their baseline and subsequent images are mapped against thousands of other patient data sets, to help pinpoint problematic growths or changes over time that may be invisible to the naked eye (or dismissed). In addition to earlier and improved detection and diagnosis, these technologies can also help cut down on unnecessary biopsies (in our private practice this reduction has been as high as 60%) due to more accurate tracking.
The Doctor Will Still See You Now
That is not to say that a physician won’t or shouldn’t still be important in skin cancer medicine. Data, on its own, is useless. It must be interpreted, examined and then acted upon. A physician will always remain the ultimate decision maker who assesses information, communicates with a patient and understands the best direction of diagnosis and treatment.
But why not have the data available to weigh a more accurate and informed decision? Lives may depend on it.