Rural communities set to benefit with virtual skin cancer check-ups

The technology was developed for use during the lockdown.
The technology was developed for use during the lockdown. Photo credit: File

Rural communities are set to benefit from new Kiwi-designed technology that can check for skin cancer virtually.

New Zealand has the second-highest rate of melanoma in the world, with around 400 Kiwis dying from the cancer every year.

But now, technology developed to make cancer checks easier during the nationwide lockdown has been adapted to help rural communities.

The virtual triage service was developed by MoleMap and was used by doctors in New Zealand and Australia during lockdown to assess patients remotely, identifying which cases were high-risk and needed to have a further diagnosis. 

Dr Amanda Oakley, a dermatologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Auckland, says when it comes to melanoma it's critical to diagnose it and treat it early.

While melanoma can be deadly, the prognosis is generally positive if found earlier enough.

Dr Oakley says there is a 94 percent five-year survival rate for melanoma less than 1mm in thickness at the time of excision.

"Most melanomas stay for a long time (sometimes decades) in a slow-growing pre-malignant stage (melanoma in situ). But some grow from a dot to a dangerous nodule within a few weeks," she says.

"Once the melanoma has progressed through the skin and into the bloodstream it can spread to other parts of the body where it becomes much harder to treat."

Jodi Mitchell, chairperson of MoleMap, says the new technology is an easy and inexpensive way for people in rural areas to get evaluated by a skin cancer nurse.

"We know that a large proportion of melanomas are initially identified by patients themselves and we are now able to use technology to help them have more direction over their care and treatment," says Mitchell.

"Patients who are concerned about a lesion will soon be able to enter a portal which contains their records and initiate a video call with a specialist melanographer who can help them determine the next steps for treatment or immediately help relieve some of the anxiety they may be experiencing."

Mitchell says as well as those in rural areas the elderly will also benefit from the technology.

"Despite being one of New Zealand’s most common forms of cancer we don't have funded surveillance programmes in place to help stop the spread of this preventable disease. COVID-19 has provided us real-time opportunity to move towards a more patient-centric treatment option which offers us a pathway to build a range of new services in the fight against skin cancer."