Why Are Doctors Unprepared to Diagnose and Treat Skin Cancers in People With Darker Skin Tones?
August 6, 2021
People of all colors can get skin cancer – but that does not mean that medical professionals are able to diagnose everyone equally. According to a 2018 medical study, researchers found that less than 5% of the images in four major dermatology textbooks feature individuals with darker skin tones. This is a big problem for a variety of reasons; some of the most pressing being that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. and that current estimates from the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) suggest that new cases are on an upward trend. Previous studies have taken a closer look at this very issue, with one finding that nearly half of all dermatology residents and practicing dermatologists say their training failed to prepare them for diagnosing and treating cancerous melanomas in patients with Black and dark-brown skin.
Skin Cancer Facts
According to estimates from the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), newly diagnosed cases of melanoma will increase by more than 5% this year. Although the overall risk for developing skin cancer is slightly lower for people of color, the problematic flipside is that those cancers are also more likely to be fatal when they do develop. This is largely in part due to the fact that early intervention and treatment are both critical when it comes to preventing poor medical outcomes for individuals with skin cancers. Here are a couple other important facts to know about skin cancers from the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA), including how they develop, risk factors, incidence rates, mortality rates and more:
- An abnormal growth of skin cells causes skin cancers. While there are many different types of skin cancers, the three most common are basal cell cancers, melanomas, and squamous cell carcinomas
- Current estimates suggest one in five Americans will develop cancer in their lifetime
- Doctors diagnose approximately 9,500 people with skin cancer in the U.S. each day
- Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, affect more than 3 million people annually. More than 1 million Americans are currently living with melanoma
- Women under the age of 50 are more likely to develop skin cancer than men. After the age of 50, the disease is more common in males
- Doctors diagnose as many as 25% of melanoma cases in Black patients after the disease has already spread to nearby lymph nodes. In 16% of the cases, the skin cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes and other organs
- People of color are particularly prone to skin cancer on parts of their body that are not commonly exposed to the sun, such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hand, the groin, underneath their nails, and even inside the mouth
- Exposure to natural and artificial light is a risk factor for all types of skin cancers. Using regular sunscreen and avoiding sunburns and exposure to tanning beds can reduce risk factors. Performing regular self-exams to check for signs of skin cancer is also an effective way to reduce risks
- Most skin cancer deaths are the result of melanoma. For example, nearly 20 Americans die from the disease each day
- When a medical professional catches skin cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is over 95%. When the disease spreads to nearby lymph nodes, the survival rate drops to 66%, and when it spreads to distant lymph nodes and other organs, the survival rate is 27%
Textbooks are not the only problem when it comes to diagnosing skin cancer in people of color. Numerous artificial intelligence tools, like Google DermAssist, have become popular in the last few years. Researchers designed these tools to recognize hundreds of skin conditions, but a survey of the technology shows that only 3.5% of the images in the database feature individuals with Black or dark-brown skin. Not only does this make it hard for individuals who are checking their skin for warning signs because they do not have enough examples to refer to, but it also complicates things for medical professionals, like dermatologists, who should be able to identify the disease on people of all different skin tones. In order to improve detection, diagnosis, and treatment rates, the medical field at-large must become more inclusive in order to ensure that dermatologists are prepared to treat melanoma (and other skin cancers) in patients with Black and dark-brown skin.
Skin Cancer: Symptoms and Prevention Tips
Some of the most common warning signs of skin cancer to watch out for include:
- Changes in size, shape, or color of a mole or other kind of skin lesion
- The appearance of a new skin growth or a sore that does not heal
- A spot on the skin that is different from others or that itches, changes, and/or bleeds
- A white waxy lump or a brown scaly patch of skin
Research shows that nearly half of melanomas are self-detected by patients conducting at-home exams. It is a good idea to perform exams regularly. If you notice any concerning or new spots on your skin, the AAD recommends making an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist.
The biggest risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to UV light, which is why it is so critical to take the necessary steps to protect your skin. To reduce skin cancer risks, the AAD recommends that individuals take the following precautions:
- Stay away from tanning beds
- Protect your skin outdoors by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, hats and sunglasses with UV protection
- Apply broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to any uncovered areas of skin
Misdiagnosed with Skin Cancer?
According to current numbers from the BMJ, approximately 12 million Americans are affected by misdiagnoses every year; approximately 40,000 to 80,000 individuals die from complications that arise from these catastrophic medical errors. Medical misdiagnoses are more common among women and people of color, who are 20-30% more likely to have a doctor misdiagnose their condition.
An overwhelming lack of examples of skin cancer on Black and dark skin is arguably one of the top contributors to lethal errors in the diagnosis and treatment of these same conditions in individuals. Without real-world, teachable examples to refer to, doctors will keep being left in the lurch as to how these conditions present in people of color. As a result, they will remain inadequately prepared to diagnose skin cancers in people with Black and dark brown skin – and some people will suffer and die because of it.
Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim
Medical mistakes may happen every day, but most of them are preventable. The difference between an unavoidable medical mistake and medical malpractice is that malpractice occurs when a doctor, hospital, or other healthcare provider fails to follow the accepted standard of care and causes harm to the patient because of it. For example, if a provider fails to detect and diagnose skin cancer in a person of color or even misdiagnoses the condition as something else, the patient should consider filing a medical malpractice claim.
The attorneys at Galfand Berger are experienced at fighting to secure the rights of medical malpractice victims. Our team represented a client who’s doctor misdiagnosed her with cancer. The doctor misinterpreted findings from a biopsy of a sore in the client’s mouth. As a result, the client underwent extensive mouth and neck surgery despite the fact that additional, follow-up studies showed no evidence of cancer. Our legal team successfully settled the matter and procured $425,000 for our client. To read more about this verdict, you can visit: https://www.galfandberger.com/verdicts/Medical-Malpractice/17-2.
If you would like to speak to someone about filing a medical malpractice claim, someone at our firm can help. Contact a representative online now.
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