(Bridget and colleagues, Sophie and Ballie)
By cross-referencing the results of the SkinVision app with ultrasound, Bridget Sparks is turning sonographers into a frontline tool to fight the disease that threatens the lives of over 80,000 New Zealanders every single year.
“My father died at age 58 from melanoma. He had a mole on his forehead that looked like Australia for years. I never even thought about it. 6
“It took a stranger at tennis to notice it one day and say that mole needs to be looked at. It was eventually removed and found to be a melanoma. Years later, I did an ultrasound on his abdomen (I am a sonographer) and found bowel masses, secondary cancers found all a bit too late. It was in his brain, lungs, and bowel, he died at the age of 58. His sister died this year from melanoma at age 64.”
Unfortunately, Bridget’s story is not uncommon in New Zealand today. Each year 2,500 New Zealanders are diagnosed with melanoma, with tens of thousands more receiving diagnoses for other forms of preventable skin cancer. The cost to the health system is placed at more than NZ$57 million per annum. The problem is only worsening. This year, New Zealand overtook Australia for the first time in rates of skin cancer, making it the country where you are most likely to develop the disease.
Having discovered her father’s secondary cancers, Bridget looked for ways she could use her skills as a sonographer to help other people. This is when she first came across the SkinVision Service through her health insurer, Accuro.
SkinVision is the leading app for early detection of skin cancer. It aims to help people learn about their skin through checking for early signs of skin cancer, improving their odds of seeing a doctor in time if a skin spot looks suspicious. The service has been downloaded over a million times and has found over 35,000 skin cancers globally, over 9,700 of which have been in New Zealand and Australia.
Earlier this year, the technology was accepted in the UK’s award-winning NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) program – an NHS England initiative delivered in partnership with England’s 15 Academic Health Science Networks. SkinVision will be supported in spreading across the NHS over the next three years, ensuring that people at risk of skin cancer are diagnosed and treated earlier. It is working on producing a similar partnership in New Zealand.
“What interested me about the app is that I had looked at my dad’s mole for years, it was asymmetrical, had two colours, but I never suspected anything.”
With SkinVision, Bridget began taking photos of her and her friends’ moles. “I started to learn what high-risk moles looked like and correlated them with ultrasound and the histology.”
Last November, when Bridget’s brother-in-law Glenn was over, she tried the app out on him and got a high risk. She scanned the mole with her ultrasound and it correlated that there was something under the skin measuring less than 1mm into the dermis. The histology confirmed that it was an invasive melanoma less than 1mm deep.
“A few weeks later, Glenn’s dad came over and I used SkinVision on him as well. Again I got a high risk, and correlated it with ultrasound and histology. Histology came back as invasive melanoma less than 1mm into the dermis, which also correlated with the ultrasound.
“Both melanomas have been removed at an early stage, the key for increasing survival rates. Glenn’s was less than 0.5mm deep and he got a wide local excision. Glenn’s dad had a melanoma in situ, and he also had a wide local excision.”
Luckily because the melanoma was caught at an early stage, diagnosed and treated by a healthcare professional, no further investigation was required.
Since November, Bridget has found another suspected skin cancer on her brother, though they are currently waiting for it to be removed and tested. “SkinVision has taught me which ones to look out for, I can now tell if they are likely to come out high risk before the app tells me. This has helped me help others as I can now point out to people if they have a mole that I think should get checked by a doctor. Since using the app, every assessment I have done that is low or moderate has been confirmed by histology as nothing to worry about.
“There is obviously a huge history in my family, but there was not in my brothers-in-law. Now, my sister’s children have it from both sides, so having SkinVision helps us keep an eye on them as their family history now puts them at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. We live in a terribly hot place, burnt so much when young, oil on our bodies, the dangers were not known then. This app works, and without Accuro, I wouldn’t have known about it. It 100% worked.”