Diagnosing Skin Cancer in 25mins by 2025

Lead Consultant Dermatologist at NHS Forth Valley, Dr Colin Morton outlines ambitious plans for Scottish innovation to help transform the diagnosis of skin cancer in the next few years.

Dr Colin Morton

Dr Colin Morton, Lead Consultant Dermatologist

Cancer remains one of the leading global causes of death, and skin cancer is among the most common types.

In fact, melanoma is the most frequent cancer killer in young adults in Scotland. It also has a major impact on health services as diagnosis and management of suspected skin cancer represents over 50 per cent of a specialist dermatology service workload and around one in five GP consultations concern skin disease.

Catching skin cancer at an early stage is therefore vital, and comprehensive, personalised treatment must start with an accurate, thorough diagnosis. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact on cancer diagnosis rates.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) figures indicate cancer diagnoses fell by about 4,000 between March and June 2019 when compared with the previous year. The obvious factor behind this was patients with possible symptoms not going to their GP because they were concerned about catching COVID.

In the case of skin cancer, it continues to be a worrying trend. The five-year survival rate for someone with a melanoma that is caught early is approximately 95 per cent. If a melanoma is not caught early, the five-year survival rate can drop to approximately 50 per cent.

In order to address this, an ambitious national consortium, led by NHS Scotland and supported by the Chief Scientist Office (CSO), will embrace industry and academia with the aim of achieving rapid diagnosis.

The goal is to achieve an indicative diagnosis of skin cancer within just 25 minutes by combining imaging of skin cancer with world-leading artificial intelligence embedded within healthcare services.

The consortium is already exploring aspects of bringing AI into healthcare, including data mining and image recognition.

We plan to share more details during a virtual event on 4 March, entitled Healthcare Innovation Live – Maximising the Future of Life Sciences and Healthcare.

The aim is to combine cutting-edge AI systems with services provided by health care professionals to promote rapid diagnosis and early treatment of skin cancer with better information for patients. This includes work to develop a new national database of skin cancer images that will underpin AI training and testing.

There are also multiple opportunities for digital solution companies to co-develop AI-driven products in collaboration with NHS Scotland. This approach provides access to safe havens within NHS Scotland, a secure environment where health data can be made available in a de-identified form for analysis to facilitate research and develop solutions. It is a method of applying new technology in a way that has not been done before by bringing together the skills and expertise of NHS, industry, and academia.

Bringing the proposed approach to life will include a programme of innovation challenge competitions, research and development projects, and plans to work with accelerators.

‘25 by 25’ is undoubtedly ambitious, but we believe the greatest opportunity to improve patient survival lies in heightened innovation through collaboration. Technology holds the power to transform skin cancer care with faster, more reliable diagnosis – and, most importantly, to make a significant difference to patients’ lives.