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Is Melanoma “Overdiagnosed?” – PathologyWatch


By Darren Whittemore, DO

As one of the most feared types of cancer, melanoma accounts for about 1 percent of skin cancers while contributing to over 7,000 deaths in the United States every year. And those numbers are steadily increasing, with annual incidences rising up to 4–6 percent over the last several decades.

In the age of improved preventative measures, early detection, digital technologies, and better treatments, why are cases of melanoma continuing to rise? Is it our propensity for skin cancer? Or could it be the diagnosis? Are patients receiving the most accurate and reliable information possible? Some voices in the dermatopathology industry believe the pursuit of a “definitive” diagnosis—bolstered with advancements in digital pathology—sometimes leads to biopsies that are collected and tested too soon and ultimately come back with a negative result for malignancy. 

However, others believe it is better to risk overdiagnosis than to miss cases before it is too late. As the industry-wide debate persists concerning melanoma diagnostic processes, let’s discuss points that support both sides of the argument. 

Yes: There are indicators of melanoma overdiagnosis.

“From an epidemiologic perspective, the sharp rise in the incidence of melanoma in the face of stable mortality for the past 40 years [signifies] the epidemiologic signature of overdiagnosis,” says Jason B. Lee, MD, in an article for the American Academy Dermatology Association

Lee echoed some of the concerns expressed by H. Gilbert Welch and his team’s research, which postulates that “the rapid rise in the incidence of melanoma is not due to a true rise in incidence, but it is the byproduct of increased scrutiny, which they refer to as the epidemic of inspection, surveillance, and biopsy of pigmented skin lesions.” 

Welch’s team asserts that the rapid rise in the incidence of melanoma is due to the increasing skin cancer screening activities, low threshold to biopsy, and low threshold to diagnose melanoma by dermatopathologists fueled by heightened public awareness of melanoma, financial incentive, and fear of missing melanoma that has resulted in what they refer to as the “cycle of melanoma overdiagnosis.” 

No: Testing for early detection—even if tests don’t result in malignancy—is good.

Opponents of this overdiagnosing argument—particularly Sancy A. Leachman, MD, PhD, and John D. Gray, an endowed chair in melanoma research—caution against rejecting new technologies for fear of diagnoses not resulting in malignant melanoma:

They suggest that we revert to not biopsying lesions less than 6 mm, rather than making an effort to better understand the biology (and clinical signs) that makes some 2 mm lesions deadly. Shouldn’t our call-to-action be to improve, rather than to decrease, our diagnostic scrutiny? Wouldn’t it be better to utilize the COVID “experiment of nature” to evaluate the true (data-based) impact of decreased melanoma screening, rather than keep all screening programs closed? . . . Should the SPOT Skin Cancer™ screening program be halted completely, as they suggest, or should we purposefully stratify risk and screen those with highest need?

The drive toward innovations in digital pathology and AI technology continues to improve the accuracy of tissue testing. Advances in digital pathology transform our view of the early stages of cellular behaviors. 

But how are we best utilizing this information? At PathologyWatch, we combine state-of-the-art technology and clinical decision-making to deliver optimal patient care with accurate diagnosis. Our clinical team carries extensive experience in identifying and predicting the cellular behaviors of chronic conditions and skin cancers. One of the advantages of having access to this expertise is that dermatologists can collaborate with our clinical team to discuss those factors should there be concerns about early detection. 

Call us to discuss the innovations in digital pathology that can help your practice diagnose with confidence.

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