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Why You May Need Dermatologic Photography

If you’ve got too many moles or freckles to count, you may notice a spot that looks suspiciously bigger or darker, or one that you don’t recall ever seeing before. It’s hard to know for sure whether a spot has changed or suddenly appeared, though, unless you’ve had photos of you skin taken and documented. For those with not just a few, but dozens or hundreds of moles, dermatologists may recommend dermatological photography — or total body photography.

“Having atypical moles has been demonstrated as an immutable risk factor for skin cancer, in just about every quality study ever undertaken,” says Whitney A. High, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology and Pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “So people with a lot of atypical moles are ideal candidates.”

Here’s what you need to know about total body photography.

What does total body photography entail?

It’s less scary than it sounds! A medical photographer takes close-up photos are taken of each area of a patient’s body to document what their skin looks like. During future office visits, your dermatologist can refer to those photos to know, with certainty, whether a mole is brand-new or it looks different than before. “Photography allows for the patient and their dermatologist to have a baseline for comparison to know if a mole is changing,” says Ali Hendi, MD, a Board-Certified Dermatologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

What is a medical photographer?

A medical photographer is a professional who is trained in total body photography. Medical photographers are often on staff within dermatology departments at hospitals that are affiliated with medical schools in big cities.

What is mole mapping?

This form of technology uses algorithms to examine photos of your skin, pinpoint suspicious spots, and track changes in your moles over time. It can also help track areas that are hard for you to see, like your back.

What is 3D mole photography?

A special high-tech camera, or a group of cameras that are carefully arranged, can create three-dimensional images of your skin and moles.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City uses 46 cameras simultaneously to capture images from nearly every angle, which are then merged together with special software to create a 3D model showing where all of your moles are. This total body photography option is offered to patients who are at high risk of melanoma.

Smaller systems are available for dermatologists, aestheticians and plastic surgeons who work outside of hospitals. A special handheld camera with 3D capabilities can give depth to images taken of the skin, and some cameras are designed to photograph small areas, like the face, rather than the entire body.

Is total body photography only useful for people who have had melanoma?

It can definitely help monitor patients who have already been treated for melanoma. “Having one melanoma is definitely a predictor of a higher risk of a second melanoma,” High says. But if you’re at risk for skin cancer, or just have a lot of moles that feel like they’re consistently shifting or changing, it may be a service to look into.

Should you get total body photography if your dermatologist doesn’t recommend it?

Probably not, only because photos won’t be very useful if your doctor won’t look at them, although you can use them for self-checks. “It’s a decision that should be made with your dermatologist,” Hendi says. “The dermatologist seeing the patient will need to be comfortable and agreeable to using those photographs to follow the patient.”

Will health insurance cover the cost?

Unfortunately, it’s likely that you will have to pay. Insurance companies may consider total body photography experimental or investigational. It may be hard to find coverage, or you’ll be poorly reimbursed or have to pay out of pocket. “But seeing your dermatologist regularly and possibly, depending upon your situation, using total body photography may just save your life,” High says.

Can’t I just use an app to track my moles?

Several apps do allow you to take photos of your moles and track them over time. These apps, however, should never be a substitute for a doctor’s visit. But if you’d like to test them out, or just track a few of your moles over time, here are some well-created apps you can download!

DermaCompare was created by Israeli researchers who used technology similar to what the Israeli Air Force uses when noting changes in aerial photographs. The app can identify moles that look suspicious and those that change.

Mole Mapper, which researchers at Oregon Health and Science University helped to develop, allows you to use photos and a mapping system to track how your moles change over time.

MySkinMap compares your photos over time, using special algorithms, to predict whether or not your mole is cancerous.

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