Are UV smartphone apps effective ?

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Are UV smartphone apps effective ?

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Venine Palm, Reporter

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These days there’s an app for almost every problem. Smartphone apps are increasingly being used in all aspects of the health sector, from calorie counters, pedometer apps, and exercise guides to now even having apps for measuring the amount of sun exposure a person gets in a day.

Researcher Dr Elke Hacker, from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, has developed an app to record sun exposure, sunburn and physical activity levels and she has tested it to see if it works.

Her app was tested by 74 people aged 18-30 and the data they entered was compared with data from their other recording devices and written diaries about their activities and time spent in the sun. The results, published in JMIR Research Protocols, were positive and showed that apps can reliably collect UV radiation data and that 79% of her participants preferred the app to paper UV diaries.

“We have really high amounts of sunburn among young people. So over 70% of people aged 17-24 were caught with sunburn in the last 12 months and this increases your risk for skin cancer,” said Dr Hacker.

Dr Hacker’s idea behind conducting this study was based around the fact that most young adults have their phones on them for majority of the day. And with the recorded rate of sunburn being so high, Dr Hacker thought to test whether UV applications that are already available are working effectively or being used effectively.

While completing her PhD, Dr Hacker looked at ways that melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) progresses. It was during this time that she came across the the idea that the best way to decrease the number of people diagnosed with skin cancer, may be to focus on prevention rather than a cure.

“When looking at patients with melanoma, we found that it was a very complex scenario when it got to the tumor. It wasn’t just initiated through a simple sunburn and ‘bam’ the cancer progresses, it happens over a lifetime of events and the best way to prevent that accumulation of damage which will manifest a tumor later in life was to prevent the sun exposure.

“When I was looking at that area there really wasn’t that many research projects looking at prevention and it was more looking at how we diagnose it, how we treat it, how we can make a cure. And I think the real focus on skin cancer is that it is preventable.”

Dr Hacker compared her PhD data with statistics from the UK and Australia and found that although the majority of Australians have a very similar genetic makeup to people from the UK, the rates of skin cancer in Australia were a lot higher with two in three people in Australia developing some kind of skin cancer by the time they’re 70.

“In the UK we don’t see those rates, so it’s just a very obvious area that needs work in terms of developing better prevention.”

Dr Hacker’s study also found that being the act of recording UV levels made people more aware of how much time they spent in the sun.

The app didn’t give any alerts so that researchers could test how aware the participants were of their UV exposure. Participants also had to record when they went outside to do physical activity or exercise. The study found that while most participants recorded intentional exercises, they didn’t record small things such as running errands or simply going outdoors when walking. In conclusion, one thing that the study highlighted was the fact that people are unaware of some instances of UV exposure, and phone applications that come along with a monitoring device would be useful to alert individuals exposed to high levels of UV they may either not be aware of or not thinking of.

According to Mark Strickland, manager of the SunSmart app from the Cancer Council, it is this unawareness that can become dangerous.

“Because we cannot see or feel UV we need to use technology to help us understand when it is strong enough to damage our skin. UV is quite predictable once you understand the concepts, but gaining that understanding is the trick. Technology like phone apps is useful for the educational opportunity it provides.”

Dr Hacker used an example of how the application they developed can be used as a measuring tool to test the effectiveness of other UV smartphone apps:

“Say there’s a music festival coming up and we were to test something new where their app will broadcast a message about sun safety during the middle of the day. We would want to record their sun exposure before the festival using our device we would be able to see how much it has improved from baseline. Meaning we would be able to test the effectiveness of the app that broadcast the messages by seeing whether their level of sun exposure decreased based on what they recorded on the device we designed.”

Although this concept makes sense, one of the negative factors can be that people won’t want to use two apps for one problem. Using one app (Dr Hacker’s app) to record sun exposure and habits, while another send alerts about sun safety. Although this research see’s some improvement in skin cancer prevention methods, it would only make sense for applications that will be developed in future to come along with some sort of wrist band that can record the UV automatically and send data through to one app, with the same app giving an individual alerts.

This idea has already been used in commercially available apps such as SunSmart, however they all rely on self-report, and an individual remembering to report their sun exposure.

“We also tested the SunSmart app, which is publicly available from the Cancer Council, and we compared that to a UV device that is set to your skin type and it alarms when you’ve had too much sun exposure. And we compared that in a randomised control trial. So the data from that study was collected using the methods we described here.”

Despite improvements that can be made across all technologies regarding UV recording and individual exposure, current apps are making a difference.

Mark Strickland said he is pleased with the uptake of the SunSmart app, which has had over 300,000 downloads to date.

“The target audience is the whole community. Our intention in creating it was to provide a quick and easy daily reminder about when sun protection is needed. The app helps to simplify a lot of the complexity around the issue since it can work out where you are and provide correct advice accordingly.”

He also said that he supports Dr Hacker’s work and that anything that helps people understand UV and prevent overexposure is a good thing.

“Too many of us still fall into the trap of using heat as the guide to using sun protection. Heat has very little to do with it.”

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Venine Palm, Reporter

Venine’s passion for all things news started when she was young girl babbling for hours on end about all the ‘need-to-know’s’, ‘sandwich stealing...

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Are UV smartphone apps effective ?